Sustainable terms used in the construction sector are often complex and evolving to adapt to changing requirements / environmental conditions. Small changes between phrases can mean something totally different, making the world of net zero difficult to navigate.
This guide on key sustainability terms break down the construction relevant language so you can:
The built environment contributes to 25% of the UK's carbon emissions (UKGBC, 2021).
28% of global energy related carbon emissions come from operational emissions, and 11% from embodied carbon (WorldGBC, 2019).
Therefore, it is important to understand the different types of emissions and how they relate to the construction industry.
Operational carbon refers to the emissions released from the ongoing energy usage that operates a building. Typical sources of these emissions are heating, hot water, lighting, power, air conditioning and lifts.
How can you reduce operational carbon emissions from buildings? Methods can include the use of renewable energy, with solar panels and heat pumps, and improving energy efficiency via insulation, LED lighting and information from smart meters.
Embodied carbon refers to all the other emissions related to the construction processes of a building, through its whole life cycle. Emissions from all processes associated with the materials or products used to construct, maintain, repair, refurbish and demolish a building are embodied carbon emissions. These emissions are distinct, not ongoing, and so cannot be removed or reduced once work has finished.
Embodied carbon can, therefore, only be reduced during the design, planning and construction phases of a building project. Intentional decisions around building design and the types of products and materials used in construction can ensure that embodied carbon is kept as low as possible. These decisions ultimately come from architects, planners and engineers and can be influenced by developers setting targets and expectations from the outset of a project.
Keep in mind that even upgrading a building to reduce its operational carbon will add to the building’s embodied carbon from the energy and raw materials used in the upgrade.
You may come across other terms such as 'upfront', 'in-use' and 'end-of-life' that relate to the specific type of embodied carbon in a building’s whole life-cycle.
Upfront carbon is the emissions created before a building is in use, so during the materials production and construction phases of a project.
In-use carbon refers to the emissions from maintenance and refurbishment processes that occur during the use of the building.
End-of-life carbon concerns emissions related to the deconstruction or demolition of a building, including waste transport, processing and disposal phases which occur after a building’s use has ended.
Whole life-cycle carbon emissions simply refer to the emissions produced across a building's entire life (e.g. both embodied and operational carbon). All stages mentioned above, such as materials, construction, building use and disposal, are all included.
Assessing and measuring whole life-cycle carbon is the only way to get a true picture of the impact of a building on the environment.
Local governments such as the Greater London Authority already have policies in place requiring development proposals to calculate and reduce whole life-cycle carbon emissions.
The built environment is continuing to improve how whole-life carbon emissions are measured and reported, this is being led by the UK Net-Zero Carbon Building Standard where the whole sector is collaborating and building upon previous work conducted by organisations such as UKGBC, LETI, RICS, IStuctE, RIBA and others.
Net zero is the most commonly used term when discussing carbon emissions especially relating to construction sector targets and regulations to reduce emissions.
Put simply, net zero is the desired state when the amount of greenhouse gas emitted to the atmosphere equals the amount of gas being absorbed and removed from the environment.
Net zero is the overarching global goal that intends to mitigate global warming.
Achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 was internationally agreed upon through the Paris Agreement and in 2019 the UK government set a legally binding target to reach this goal.
As a result, net zero is most often used when discussing carbon emissions on a large scale, for example, when discussing the goals of companies, countries, or whole industries.
Net-zero and carbon-neutral have similar meanings but are used in different contexts.
Carbon neutrality refers to balancing the amount of carbon released with an equivalent amount, often by sequestration or offsetting.
However, unlike net zero, which includes all greenhouse gases, carbon neutrality typically only accounts for carbon emissions.
Also, although it can be used to describe a larger process, the term carbon neutral is more often used when talking about smaller-scale efforts to reduce carbon.
For example, a company may have a specific product or process that is carbon neutral, meaning that the carbon emissions from that specific element have been neutralised by other efforts.
Carbon negative goes one step further than both carbon neutral and net zero as it means a country, company or product is removing or offsetting more carbon from the atmosphere than it is emitting.
Seemingly opposite terms to carbon negative such as carbon positive or climate positive are often used interchangeably. The terms refer to the positive impact on the environment that removing or offsetting more emissions than you are producing causes.
OSTO®, LCM’s flagship product, is made from waste materials making it carbon negative.
Operational carbon: the emissions released from the ongoing energy usage that operates a building.
Embodied carbon: all the other emissions related to the construction processes of a building throughout its whole life cycle.
Upfront carbon: emissions created before a building is in use.
In-use carbon: emissions that occur during the use of the building.
End-of-life carbon: emissions related to the deconstruction or demolition of a building.
Whole life-cycle carbon: emissions produced across a building's entire life, from construction to demolition and everything in between.
Net zero: when the amount of greenhouse gas emitted to the atmosphere equals the amount of gas being absorbed and removed from the environment.
Carbon neutrality: releasing and removing the same amount of carbon.
Carbon negative: the net effect of removing more carbon from the atmosphere than you are emitting.
Climate positive: removing more carbon from the atmosphere than you are emitting and therefore having a positive impact on the environment.
Carbon offsetting: when carbon emissions produced from an activity are compensated for by investing in external projects that reduce the equivalent amount of carbon emissions.
Carbon insetting: when the carbon reduction activities implemented to offset carbon emissions are undertaken within a companies own value-chain.
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Continue reading about embodied carbon with these related articles:
And find out more about how Low Carbon Materials is helping to reduce embodied carbon in the built environment with our flagship product OSTO®.
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