What the U.S. Government’s Focus on Embodied Carbon Means for Buildings

The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022 made specifying low-carbon building materials and products a vital component of the federal government’s strategy to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

While the stipulations and requirements in the Act are still in the process of being implemented, now is the time for those responsible for selecting building materials to begin preparing for its impact on procurement.

It’s likely many building professionals want to know how the Act will affect their day-to-day activities – they may wonder, “What does it change? Why does it matter? Who does it impact? And how will it affect materials decisions?”

Below is some guidance to help teams identify the strategies and tools needed to be successful.

What Will Change with the Act

The Act represents a major milestone for federally funded climate action. It includes almost $400 billion in funding to drive “climate-smart” practices to reduce U.S. GHG emissions by 40% by 2030.

Notably, the Act specifically focuses on transforming the built environment sector to become a positive force for the climate. This is critical as nearly 40% of energy-related global GHG emissions are from the building industry. The IRA will incentivize designers to invest in and pursue low-carbon procurement goals for their government projects.

It aims to drive reductions in embodied carbon emissions – or the carbon emissions associated with creating building materials and with building construction. Specific ways that the Act seeks to decarbonize the building sector include:

  • $2.15 billion to install low-carbon materials in General Services Administration-owned buildings. The GSA owns about 1,500 facilities around the country, including office buildings, land ports of entry, courthouses, laboratories, post offices, and data processing centers.
  • $2 billion for Low-Carbon Transportation Grants to reimburse and incentivize using low-carbon materials for Federal Highway Administration projects.
  • $250 million to develop and standardize Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) for construction materials, with grants and technical assistance for manufacturers.
  • $100 million to identify and label low-carbon materials and products for federally funded transportation and building projects.
  • $4 billion to improve resiliency in affordable housing, including funds for low-carbon materials.

With almost $10 billion of funding focused on reducing embodied carbon impacts through low-carbon specification and decision-making, the Act is the incentivize needed to drive widespread interest in low-carbon procurement and buildings.

Low-carbon materials, like Interface flooring, can help reduce the carbon footprint of buildings.

Why the Act Matters

The Act includes various investments that experts are touting as potential game changers in cutting U.S. GHG emissions in the coming years.

Buildings represent a significant opportunity to drive carbon reductions. The Act will drive low-carbon or green procurement, requiring that architects and designers understand the embodied carbon impact of their procurement decisions and begin to set embodied carbon reduction goals for their projects.

Beyond the Act, other policy efforts and the corporate sector’s growing interest in building decarbonization strategies are making it even more critical that the building industry understands and acts on embodied carbon’s role in climate change. By seizing the opportunity and funding presented by the Act, teams can start to consider and account for embodied carbon on government-owned projects.

The good news is that there are many tools and resources available to help with embodied carbon education and support the specification of low-carbon materials.

Who the Act Impacts

The legislation will drive climate-smart strategies across various industries with its large focus on clean energy. However, for the building sector, it mainly impacts two specific groups:

Government-owned project teams: To realize the opportunity presented by the Act, architects, designers and facility managers must learn about embodied carbon and the strategies for reducing these emissions. It’s best for building professionals to get smart on embodied carbon now, so they can act once the Act goes into effect. Those looking to learn more about embodied carbon and its role in the built environment can sign up for Interface’s free Carbon Love and Learn Curriculum.

Building material and product manufacturers: The Act includes funding specifically for building material transparency and labeling to support the specification of low-carbon options. Manufacturers must invest in and publish EPDs for their products if they want to be specified for government projects. The Act includes funding for manufacturers to develop these documents.

Built environment professionals should start ramping up now to ensure they are prepared to take full advantage of the funding and other provisions of the Act, which presents the building industry with a globally significant opportunity to reverse global warming and positively impact the planet.

All Interface flooring products are carbon neutral across their full life cycle through the company’s Carbon Neutral Floors™ program.

How the Act Affects Material Decisions

With the Act’s implementation, we will see a large movement towards prioritizing low-carbon materials and product procurement on government-owned projects.

This has never been easier, thanks to new tools and resources that provide visibility into embodied carbon impacts to help inform decision-making. For example, Building Transparency’s Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3) is a free, open-access tool that helps users measure, compare, and reduce the embodied carbon of specified products. It leverages data from more than 100,000 global EPDs across building material categories and brands to help teams better understand and identify embodied carbon reduction opportunities.

As specification of low-carbon materials increases, so will the incentives manufacturers have to invest in decarbonization strategies for their products. Manufacturers must continue to lower the carbon footprint of their factories, products, and supply chains to facilitate the building industry’s prioritization of low-carbon and net-zero built spaces.

Long-term Impacts

While the Act’s immediate impact will be felt most quickly within the federal government, it is likely that other public and private projects will also prioritize carbon in future specifications. The recent federal action follows low-carbon procurement policies already implemented in California and Colorado, so ideally the Act will inspire other similar efforts at the state and local level, resulting in greater demand for low-carbon building materials. To compete for government business, manufacturers will need to develop more low-carbon options. Inevitably these products will become available to everyone, which should help drive progress on decarbonizing buildings in the private sector.

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