Dr Caroline Noller, Founder & Chief Executive Officer, The Footprint Company makes an argument for embodied carbon White Certificates for buildings to efficiently achieve Paris goals.
The cradle to gate production of building materials drives almost 55% of total annual global carbon emissions . Emissions from operating energy by contrast are only 9% of the total. If all new buildings were just 20% less embodied carbon intense we would go a long way in achieving Paris Agreement goals quickly and more productively.
The real magic in embodied carbon abatement lies in its absolute certainty in scale and delivery. In contrast, pursuing operating emissions reduction can have perverse outcomes and bring embodied emissions forward in the economy or savings are never actually achieved (e.g. BASIX rainwater tank requirements or ACC Section J western sun-shading) . Even the best solar panels have an embodied carbon payback of 3-6 years.
The Paris Agreement requires a cut of 75% to annual emissions growth in the next ten years. The vast majority of policy focus is on clean energy and transport with limited building efficiency. This is simply not enough as most of these policies require embodied carbon to be “spent/added” to achieve “savings”, which delivers too little outcome, too late.
The measurement of embodied carbon is as well defined as operating carbon, thanks to robust International Standards, significant national and sectoral inventories, as well as robust building specific low cost on-line carbon footprint calculators such as our own, The Footprint Calculator as well as, E-Tool and Go Tally.
With over 30,000,000m² of buildings measured, our results and benchmarks show uniformly that a 20% reduction is possible at little cost, 30% with some cost and 50% a plausible stretch target. Key barriers to rapid uptake are access, awareness and assessment cost. Applying the concept of “white certificates” to embodied carbon is a logical way to overcome these.
White Certificates certify a certain emissions reduction and are tradable instruments. White Certificates have existed in many countries and in Australia for over a decade. They have been most widely and successfully taken up in property demand side projects (e.g. energy efficiency activities including: modifying existing installations; replacing existing installations; implementing a new installation that has less carbon emissions than an installation of the same type). The results of their use suggest they are an efficient and productive instrument to accelerate abatement. The spot price for these in Australia is about $23/Tonne.
The property sector “White Certificate” validation method is well defined and can be directly translated to embodied carbon. The development of a NABERS style rating to simplify certification is also possible. The scale of certificates for embodied abatement will create meaningful incentives for property owners. Greenhouse emissions arising from building operations are accepted as the most important sustainability factor for buildings. As such, we argue embodied emissions should be given the same priority, given their relationship to 50% of global emissions.
Two recent projects can demonstrate the productivity benefit of an embodied White Certificate program.
Case 1: A university teaching facility in NSW adopted an alternative design and re-used the existing façade and structure of a building rather than the initial knock-down re-build concept. This decision avoided 4,000 T CO2 and the project team identified additional material alternatives, which resulted in total avoided emissions of 5,320 T CO2 or 28% of the “reference case” design. At the spot price of A$23, the avoided value would be worth $122,000. This mitigates the cost of assessment and validation as well as provides a meaningful project incentive.
Case 2: A new build student accommodation facility in ACT delivered a 20% reduction against its “reference case” by adopting alternative materials as well as a timber framed pre-fabricated structure. Over 8,700 T CO2 were avoided, which at a price of A$23/ T CO2 would have provided an incentive of over $200,000. This could have been directed to additional mitigation measures such as on-site solar PV or other materials innovations. The value raised would have eliminated the cost barrier of assessment and validation.
As experts in building embodied carbon impact assessment and design, we argue that embodied carbon emissions, are the “gorilla in the room” to achieving Paris in the time needed. The implementation of a White Certificate is feasible given the prevailing International Standards and available data quality. Moreover, it can deliver rational incentives to the sector to actively mitigate embodied carbon for new and existing property stock. The result will be substantial economic and environmental productive gains for the property sector, which is ultimately better for society.
 Trends in Global CO2 Emissions, 2016. EU Joint Research Council.  Williamson, T (2010) Comfort and Energy Use in Australian Award Winning Houses. BRI Vol 38, 2010 - Issue 5.