A level playing field at last for embodied carbon in goods and services
Willow Aliento | 12 July 2018
At last, after years of interpretations and variations, the built environment looks like having an international standard on embodied carbon that create a level playing field for products and services.
The International Organization for Standardization has finalised a new standard for the carbon footprint of products, ISO 14067, in a move that industry experts say could be a real game changer for how we deal with embodied carbon in our built environment.
It means everybody now “knows the rules” for calculating the emissions footprint of products and creates a level playing field by taking out the element of interpretation of what to include.
The new standard, ISO 14067, involved work by 40 countries over 10 years and builds on the ISO standard for life cycle assessment to provide more detail on how to calculate the carbon footprint of products and services.
Chief executive of thinkstep in Australasia, Dr Barbara Nebel, who was part of the committee that developed the standard said
the move was particularly relevant in Australia because the Green Building Council’s carbon positive roadmap includes embodied carbon.
It might also mean that Australian companies have a better chance of exporting to the European Union with the EU looking to include the carbon footprint standard in its Product Environmental Footprint initiative.
“The standard is not a barrier to trade,” Nebel says. “Having the same rules [worldwide] means it’s fair.”
Director of The Footprint Company, Dr Caroline Noller, says the standard is a “great thing” that “removes a very annoying technical argument that holds back progress in carbon footprinting of embodied carbon.”
She would like to see all members of the World Green Building Council adopt the standard as part of the lifecycle analysis of a building. This would mean including operational, embodied and transport-related carbon over the full lifecycle of the building.
Another positive of the standard is it can help clear up the “forest” of product labels by giving a clear and cost-effective structure for products where carbon is their major impact.
Overall, it will “100 per cent fire up the conversation” about embodied carbon, Noller says.
How it works
The standard replaces the previous practice of individual assessors or labelling systems deciding what emissions types would be factored in.
It mandates the use of the most recent data on all greenhouse gas emissions and their impacts. It also demands that not just carbon emissions are considered but also other GHGs such as methane and nitrogen dioxide.
Energy calculations are now full lifecycle figures or those of the national grid
That standard uses the full lifecycle of providing energy including the Scope 3 emissions to make its assessment instead of electricity calculations based on the individual supplier or retailer figures.
If the company does not have renewable energy generation certificates for its power supply, the electricity emissions calculations must use the national grid factor (where applicable), or the relevant grid emissions data for the region.
So in New Zealand, the national grid factor would be used, and in Australia, the relevant distribution grid’s emissions factor is used.
For a Tasmanian company, that would mean not using the emissions factor associated with Hydro Tasmania, which is 100 per cent renewable, but part of the coal-heavy eastern state grid, as Tasmania’s supply is now part of the mainland Victorian and NSW grid.
Nebel told The Fifth Estate the footprint analysis needs to include the whole lifecycle of the product, including upstream and downstream emissions.
A footprint for a brick, for example, would include the Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions of mining the sand for the brick.
Land use change associated with a product also needs to be included, whether it results in emissions of CO2 from an activity such as clearing vegetation, or results in removals of atmospheric carbon due to the planting of it.
The truth of the matter
According to Noller, the carbon lens can reveal things an Environmental Product Declaration may not.
Noller gives the example of a recent project on which she consulted where the architect wanted to specify woodwool panels for ceilings.
While the EPD had details such as the wood content coming from an FSC-certified source, Noller says it was difficult to find details in the EPD of the embodied carbon of the whole product.
She analysed the product for the client, and the results showed it had four times the embodied carbon impact of regular plasterboard. This was due to the process of impregnating the wood content with concrete and then baking it to give the panels stiffness and ensure fire safety.
“This is why an embodied carbon label is so important.”
Noller says the importance of assessing embodied carbon needs wider promotion. Around 70 per cent of development control plans by local governments have requirements around environmentally sustainable development.
However, in terms of materials criteria this usually means statements around reducing environmental footprints and increasing recycled content for buildings, and in some, metrics for embodied energy.
But embodied carbon is not being enshrined in the DCPs as a premium concern.
The standard can become a way of “bringing some fire to what is otherwise a very fuzzy expression,” she says.
Looking at carbon in terms of a lifecycle analysis can speed up the process of understanding environmental impacts, potentially leading to greater uptake of the LCA approach and reducing complexity and confusion.
Targets can lead to innovation
There can also be other payoffs.
Noller says that for a university’s major renewal project she consulted on recent, the contractor wanted to implement a carbon control plan from the outset.
She set the project a “carbon quota”.
The feedback from the project team was that all the changes they made to the program, materials specifications and processes to reduce embodied carbon actually had benefits from the project in terms of increasing safety, saving time and saving costs.
“Targets make the construction industry innovate,” Noller says.
The standard will be published and available for use in the coming months.