Buildings have a tremendous impact on greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon, and that affects climate change. The climate change situation is serious. The global surface temperature is getting warmer year after year, and it’s likely caused by human activities. We see the results or global warming in the news: extreme weather, mudslides, wildfires of greater intensity, and hurricanes with greater ferocity, likely caused by warming ocean temperatures.
Carbon levels have skyrocketed since the middle of the 20th century, and scientists have found a direct correlation between carbon dioxide (CO2) levels, warming global temperatures and rising sea levels. Much of the carbon in the atmosphere gets there through the burning of fossil fuels, such as oil, coal and gas. Without major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the increase in global temperatures could be catastrophic. But if we act now, we can keep levels below a 2˚C increase, which is generally considered to be the tipping point.
How can changes in the way we build help in the fight against climate change? When it comes to energy consumption in the United States, buildings account for 47.6% of the total. Instead of thinking about operational energy consumption, we should be thinking about the embodied energy consumption that goes into the manufacturing of building materials and the building construction process. Embodied carbon refers to the greenhouse gases released all along the supply chain vs. the gases released as a result of operating the building — and the embodied carbon in the production of building materials is what we should be specifically targeting.
The attached infographic, The Climate Crisis: How Your Building Can Fight Back, offers a brief, graphic overview of this topic. It includes facts about climate change, a graphic representation of the contribution that buildings make to total energy consumption in the U.S., an explanation of embodied carbon, and ways to reduce a building’s embodied carbon footprint.
What does this mean for the construction industry? It means that the time has come to rethink the way we manufacture building products and the types of materials we put into our buildings. Our goals should be to encourage the production of lower embodied-carbon products, develop more sustainable products, reduce the amount of materials used in the building, and incorporate low carbon materials into building design. Past experience tells us that If enough builders and architects specify lower carbon materials, then the manufacturers will produce them.
Continue reading to learn more about this important topic.