Making Sure Carbon Calculations Add Up

Embodied carbon in the construction sector is a major contributor to climate change and must be tackled if nations are to hit net zero goals. Yet it is incredibly difficult to measure accurately because of the high variability and complexity involved – especially when conducted via a limited manual approach. Fortunately then, innovation has the answer with the arrival of a new tool enabling construction professionals to calculate the exact embodied carbon of the construction material products used in their project, with ease, at pace, as and when they need it.  


Here, Kirstin McCarthy, Sustainability Director at Aggregate Industries, explores the growing impetus for reducing embodied carbon at the inaugural design stages of a building’s structure and the latest technological solutions which can help. 

Tree and earth in hands

For years now, the construction industry has ramped up its approach to operational energy-related carbon reductions in heating, cooling, lighting and other building equipment, while continuing to increase renewable and energy efficiency investment. However, there is, of course, another, less obvious source of carbon emissions associated with buildings: embodied carbon.

It's estimated that the carbon emissions released during the manufacturing, transportation, construction and end of life phases of all built assets – also known as embodied carbon -contribute to 11% of all global carbon emissions.1 Yet, they remain largely overlooked.

As the climate emergency continues to take its toll though, this must and will change. As part of it progressive ‘Embodied Carbon Upfront’ report, the World Green Building Council (WGBC) has demanded that all new buildings, infrastructure and renovations will have at least 40% less embodied carbon by 2030, and, in turn, net zero embodied carbon by 2050.2

Effective carbon measurement and reporting will be essential in this. Unfortunately though, embodied carbon is much more difficult to measure and track than operational carbon, which is relatively simple to calculate based on energy bills. Essentially this is because embodied carbon cannot be measured directly. A contractor cannot, of course, break concrete open and quantity the embodied carbon inside. Instead, it requires self-assessment and total transparency from the manufacturer as to how and where a material is produced. 

Adding further complexity, is the sheer magnitude of options and variables to consider. 
Take, for example, a concrete solution – not only can the embodied carbon vary immensely depending on the use and strength of materials used, but everything from the distance travelled by the raw materials, additives used or other changes can contribute to overall carbon measurement. The result is that there are tens of thousands of different mix design options that can be calculated on today’s market – a huge feat when using the standard manual approach. It doesn’t help either that two different concrete products may look exactly the same, perform the same and even come from the same brand – but entail a drastically different carbon impact.

What Gets Measured Gets Managed

Accordingly, following months of research and development, Aggregate Industries recently launched Your Carbon Report, the very first carbon reporting tool that enables customers to access a ‘cradle to site’ assessment to calculate, track and report embodied carbon with ease.

The primary function of Your Carbon Report is to provide unmatched transparency within the construction materials category to accelerate and scale the reduction of embodied carbon in the built environment. In a true ‘cradle to site’ concept, the tool looks at the entire manufacturing process, from raw material extraction to transportation. It also looks at the individual components of each different product and plant, as well as the distance to plant, raw material values, plant energy and distribution to site, with the ensuing data available quickly in a comprehensive, user-friendly report.

The result is that construction professionals can easily access and view exacting material carbon-emissions data for products by manufactured Aggregate Industries, thus enabling carbon-smart choices during design and procurement. This can even be split down by project, customer account and manufacturing plant for an unmatched level of precision. Without the need for traditional manual reporting, what would have taken most sustainability expert days can now be accomplished in minutes by general contractors.

Its unique ability to go beyond average figures and provide both the A1-A3 (cradle to gate) and/or A1-A4 (cradle to site) overview of products can further extend its utility, enabling users a ‘big picture’ insight into the embodied carbon impacts of their material choices. 

It is also incredibly flexible, allowing users to interrogate the data received to identify where carbon savings can be made by comparing the carbon of different products used.

To give assurance to customers that the solution includes all necessary material flows and is in line with industry best practice, all data in the carbon reporting tool is independently audited by Circular Ecology too. This comes amid rampant ‘greenwashing’ within the wider construction sector, as many, often lesser known companies continue to jump on the green bandwagon by overpromising and underdelivering on the carbon trail of their products. 

Knowledge is Power

It is often said that knowledge is power, especially in the context of the climate challenge. What’s great here about the latest advances in carbon calculation technology is that it is as much about informing customers’ operations as driving the internal future change needed to make net zero happen. 

In this way, at Aggregate Industries, Your Carbon Report has had a transformative effect in terms of empowering team members with the insight to review carbon impact values internally and determine where to focus the drive to lower these values. For example, we now have a much greater insight into the carbon impact of different transport methods, such as changing from road to rail, or the climate-relevant opportunity to be had from sourcing more locally. This visibility will play a vital role in enabling more informed strategic decision-making in all areas of our sustainable strategy.

More so, we see this as a collaborative process whereby customers are able to freely challenge and interrogate the data provided and provide feedback and even future recommendations. After all, we all have a part to play in making sustainability happen and we believe banding together to beat back the tide will benefit us all.

Embodied Carbon: An Inside Job

Ultimately, the reality is that no is no longer an option when it comes to the embodied carbon mandate. Rather, if we are to have a fighting chance of securing our net zero future, construction must begin to tackle the embodied carbon emissions that happen as part of the initial construction process with the same vigour and bold, aggressive action that it has continued to address operationally-led emissions. By taking advantage of the latest advances in carbon calculation technology, this challenging feat can be achieved easier, at scale and at pace, effectively helping to build our sustainable future from the inside out. 

For more information visit our Your Carbon Report pages.

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