The building and construction sector has experienced a resurgence that – in spite of a significant increase in energy efficiency investments – resulted in record-setting carbon emissions, with 2021 surpassing the previous all-time high set in 2019.
The latest Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction found that “the lack of structural or systemic decarbonisation improvement in the building sector leaves its emissions reductions vulnerable to external factors.”
This giant step backward places the building and construction sector at risk of failing to meet the Paris Agreement’s net-zero by 2050 pledge and has spurred a greater call for regional and local governments to tighten regulations on building and construction practices.
For organizations that wish to take a proactive role in reducing their carbon footprint in the building and construction sector, the report advises that “a whole life-cycle approach to construction is essential to maximise sustainability.”
What Is a Whole Life-Cycle Carbon Assessment?
A whole life-cycle carbon assessment (WLCA) examines both embodied carbon and operational emissions over the whole life cycle of a building.
This cradle-to-grave assessment of carbon output and environmental impact offers a snapshot view of a building and affords assessors the opportunity to reduce carbon emissions by identifying areas of greatest concern and offering solutions or alternatives to reduce impact.
Carbon and Greenhouse Gas Emission Types
According to the World Green Building Council, embodied emissions are “carbon emissions associated with materials and construction processes throughout the whole lifecycle of a building or infrastructure.”
Sources of embodied emissions include
- Material extraction
- Transportation of all related materials, goods, and debris
Operational emissions take into account all carbon emissions during the operational phase of a building.
Sources of operational emissions include
- Electricity produced by fossil fuel combustion
- On-site heat and power generation
- Leaky pipes and valves that emit greenhouse gasses
- Malfunctioning equipment that emits greenhouse gasses
- Refrigerants leaking from heat pump equipment and refrigeration units
- Leaks in CO2, nitrous oxide, and methane during installation, maintenance, and operation of equipment and building systems
Business Benefits of a Whole Life Carbon Assessment
In addition to doing your part to help globally curb carbon emissions and meet the 2050 goal set out in the Paris Agreement, there are business benefits to conducting a WLCA of your buildings and facilities.
A whole life-cycle carbon assessment:
- Identifies opportunities for infrastructure improvements that increase efficiency and reduce costs. Many operational emissions are caused by faulty or outdated equipment and infrastructure. Strategic upgrading of these items will reduce carbon emissions and improve operations.
- Offers real environmental action that resonates with the public. People in virtually all markets worldwide place value on organizations that are making real strides toward reducing their environmental impact. By publicizing your real action steps, you garner public goodwill.
- Guides your organization in decision-making around expanding your physical footprint. The data from a WLCA can be a deciding factor in whether you build new or renovate existing buildings. It is important to consider the impact of land clearing and/or demolition of existing structures for new construction purposes versus retrofitting buildings when making decisions around expansion.
- Delivers findings that can make your organization more attractive to investors. Earning an environmental, social, governance (ESG) rating opens doors in the investment world. According to Angelique Dickson, President of Inogen Alliance, “Strong ESG performance has become a business imperative, critical to risk management, and an indicator of organizational health and resilience.”
The WLCA Process
A whole life-cycle carbon assessment can be conducted on both existing infrastructure as well as proposed building and construction projects.
Having clearly defined goals ahead of a WLCA will help you use the best framework for the process.
Common goals for a WLCA include
- Ensuring compliance with local and regional regulations
- Maintaining industry-related certifications
- Achieving an ESG rating
- Complying with organizational values and mission statements
Once you have determined your overarching goals, you can better identify which organization units, people, and resources to engage in the assessment process.
Data gathering and analysis
This stage examines all environmental inputs and outputs for the structures included in your assessment. The framework you use for the assessment should help guide your data collection in a focused manner.
This is perhaps the most time-consuming and detailed stage of the process, which is why identifying the responsible parties in the previous stage is so important. Gaining buy-in and cooperation from experts within your organization increases the accuracy and value of the data they supply.
Whole life-cycle impact assessment
Once your data has been collected and analyzed, it is time to convert that information into an environmental impact score. Depending on the framework you are using, you should be able to score your environmental impact for reporting and compliance purposes.
Analysis of findings
Each of your findings can be classified by urgency or degree of impact. You can draw conclusions about your organization’s facilities that allow you to improve processes, prioritize spend, and create carbon-reduction programs.
The Time for WLCA is Now
The Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, with sights set on achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.
As we approach the end of the first decade under this agreement, the global building and construction sector is producing more carbon emissions than ever. It is imperative that businesses must change how they manage their physical infrastructure.
Our associates at Delta-Simons have published a deep look at whole life cycle carbon assessment with a focus on UK building regulations. Regardless of your geographical location, this article will shed additional light on what has become a topic of great urgency.
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