Making Embodied Carbon Actionable – A Joint Research Report by RMI and USGBC
Session Recap: Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023
By Wes Sullens

Why embodied carbon? If you’ve been following conversations on sustainability in the built environment over the last 10 years, chances are, you’ve heard the growing concern around “embodied carbon”. This term refers to the millions of tons of Earth-warming carbon emissions released during the life cycle of building materials, including extraction, manufacturing, transport, construction, and disposal. Concrete foundations, steel framing, glass facades, building insulation and interior finishes are all examples of materials that contribute to embodied carbon emissions and the climate crisis.

During this session, Allison Smith (HKS, Inc.), Victor Olgyay (RMI), and I sought to answer some of today’s most common questions about embodied carbon and highlight key actions to meaningfully decarbonize the building construction industry with what we know today. The foundation for the presentation was the newly released report, Driving Action on Embodied Carbon in Buildings.

Quick facts about embodied carbon
  • The current estimate is that the embodied carbon from building materials account for approximately 11% of global energy-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. That’s 11% of global emissions.
  • Up-front embodied carbon emissions from building construction in the United States is estimated at up to 370 million tons of CO2e annually, or at least 6% of total US GHG emissions. This is equal to all of the state of California’s current emissions. 
What’s in the report?
How big an opportunity is embodied carbon?

Which should we prioritize: operational or embodied emissions? 

What should we prioritize to reduce embodied carbon today?

Do low-embodied-carbon materials cost more?

What should I measure and how? 

Is the data good enough?

Is there enough data on interiors and furnishings?

What is the future of concrete and steel?

Can wood products benefit the climate?

Is carbon storage in buildings really possible?

What does the policy landscape look like for embodied carbon?

Millions of tons of emissions can be avoided with known strategies today! Measure and implement strategies for easy reductions.
We can and must reduce both without pitting one against the other. Examine both to find the win-win scenarios for maximum reductions.
Reuse more, dematerialize, and substitute with low-embodied-carbon materials. Use life-cycle assessments (LCA) to find reduction strategies.
Opportunities exist today with little to no cost or schedule impact. Request costs for low-embodied carbon products early and balance cost and carbon.
Choose an appropriate LCA type. Decide on a scope of analysis for your calculations — you can start small!
We know enough today to make meaningful reductions. Don’t wait, act now! Support standardization efforts and filling the gaps.
The data gap is big. The impact could be big and is worth paying attention to. Include interior elements in LCA and support their data collection.
They will remain important in construction and are decarbonizing. Accelerate decarbonization with transition to renewables and low-carbon alternatives uptake.
Embodied carbon benefits from the increased use of wood products in buildings are being debated now, but there are clear wins and strategies project teams can implement to ensure wood products are legal, yields are sustainable, and forestry practices are trending toward climate-resilient outcomes.
Buildings could become a carbon storage solution. Encourage the development of bio-based materials, carbon storing concrete, and others, by using them.
Low-embodied-carbon material legislation exists, and whole building limits are coming. Familiarize with building LCA and material procurement regulations.
Forty years ago, projects were learning how to improve energy efficiency by 20% to 30% — the low-hanging fruit. Back then, zero carbon for large buildings was an impossible dream. Now, however, carbon-neutral building operation is on the horizon for all buildings. We’ve come a long way. We must go down the same road with embodied carbon, only this time we do not have 40 years to figure it out.

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