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The urgent challenge of net zero embodied carbon

Gold coast beach builidings at dawn
Photo by Nathan Cowley from Pexels

OPINION: Climate change is without much doubt the greatest threat now confronting the planet – and the dread most of us feel about accelerating global warming is being deepened by the failure of our elected leaders to act decisively.

For decades, politicians have hedged their bets on climate action or demurred when stronger actions were proposed: little wonder that 18 of the past 19 years have been the warmest on record.

Our towns and cities are at the epicentre of global warming: they consume nearly 80 per cent of the world’s energy and produce more than 60 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Built environment professionals need to succeed where governments have failed

Planners, architects, engineers and landscape architects already work hard to make these places more sustainable, but that effort needs to be redoubled in the absence of firm new commitments and actions by government.

The challenges of adapting and equipping our built environment for the climate emergency are two-fold: to lower transport-generated emissions and to quickly reduce the upfront and operational carbon emissions from our buildings and infrastructure.

A look through the entries shortlisted for the 2019 Australian Urban Design Awards will confirm that planners are exploring innovative, new ways to encourage active transport, improve rail transit options and pave the way for automated and zero-emissions vehicles.

They’re equally proactive in ensuring our buildings are made ready for climate impacts and are healthy and comfortable places in which to live or work.

The importance of this mission got a timely boost last month when the World Green Building Council (WorldGBC), along with the Green Building Council of Australia and 62 other co-signatories, laid out a roadmap for net zero “embodied” carbon buildings.

Embodied or upfront carbon refers to the emissions released during the manufacture and transport of building materials, and the construction as well the end-of-life-phases of built assets, while the emissions released when heating, cooling, lighting and energising built assets over their lifetime are grouped as operational carbon.

Until relatively recently, insufficient attention has been paid to upfront carbon, perhaps because much of it is a case of out of sight and out mind. But it is a substantial contributor to global carbon emissions – over 10 per cent.

That percentage will rise as the operational carbon emissions of our homes, factories and offices are progressively reduced by using new technologies and new materials.

However, steel, glass, cement, and bricks – all of which are inherently energy-intensive to make – are likely remain in strong demand as construction materials.

That puts an obligation on built-environment practitioners to reuse, recycle, readapt and reconfigure existing assets and materials where possible.

Time to get away from the idea that we should tear down factories and stadiums after 30 or 40 years

The idea that offices, homes, factories and sports stadiums should have a design life of 30 or 40 years to then be torn down, dumped in landfill sites, and replaced with equally disposable assets is hugely wasteful.

If there is any silver lining to our current apartment construction crisis it is that governments and the public realise that buildings must be designed for an extended life, preferably be adaptable to new uses or renovated if they’re no longer fit for purpose.

For built-environment practitioners, the next challenge (after reducing or eliminating upfront carbon and operational carbon) is net zero embodied carbon.

What’s net zero embodied carbon building?

A net zero embodied carbon building is one is one where upfront carbon has been minimised to the greatest possible extent and where all remaining embodied carbon is offset so that emissions over the lifecycle of the building are effectively eliminated.

The WorldGBC wants all new buildings, infrastructure and renovations to have at least 40 per cent less embodied carbon by 2030, with net zero operational carbon.

Its goal for 2050 is for all new assets to have net zero embodied carbon, and all buildings, infrastructure and renovations (new and existing) to have net zero operational carbon.

Is this timeframe feasible? If we’re pragmatic in our approach, then yes.

The Australian Built Environment Council (ASBEC), with the support of the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA), has endorsed the WorldBGC’s goals.

And PIA is now looking closely at the implications, for not only development assessment but how carbon reduction and offsetting is applied in strategic planning and in the master-planning of precincts.

Carbon offsets are an important policy mechanism for sequestering carbon created in the making and running of buildings – but neutrality is not a given.

Being long-term (and off-site propositions, offsets can be difficult to measure and verify. There’s another pitfall too: they can encourage building developers or owners to not think too deeply or seriously about carbon and energy efficiency.

Reducing upfront and operating emissions must remain the primary focus of build-environment practitioners, with carbon offsets serving as an adjunct.

It hardly needs saying that limiting global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius will be a large and complex task – made more so by the inevitable creation of winners and losers – or that declaring a climate emergency without an effective plan risks frittering away additional time.

The Planning Institute of Australia is looking to involve planners more closely on how best to map a path to a radically carbon-constrained future, and other built environment professions are doing the same.

If this process leads to demonstrably effective and high-quality outcomes, the public’s support for more far-reaching solution will grow –and politicians will have to get down off the fence and start acting decisively.

Planners, architects, engineers and landscape architects must take the lead in this climate crisis, and not simply because we’re committed to leaving the world a better place for our children and grandchildren.

We alone have the skills, the energy and the commitment to make a decisive difference.

David Williams is the chief executive officer of the Planning Institute of Australia, which represents qualified urban and regional planners across the country.


Spinifex is an opinion column open to all our readers. We require 700+ words on issues related to sustainability especially in the built environment and in business. For a more detailed brief please send an email to editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

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