Last month’s IPCC report emphasised that deep emissions cuts across all sectors and systems are required to combat the impacts of human-led climate change. (IPCC, 2023)
The UK government has committed to achieving a 68% reduction in the country’s carbon emissions by 2030, compared to 1990 levels.
In line with the Paris Agreement, the UK has also pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
Since the built environment accounts for 25% of the UK's total greenhouse gas emissions, it will be a key sector for emission reductions regulation and efforts going forward. (UK Green Building Council, 2021)
The climate impact of the built environment is predominantly caused by operational and embodied carbon emissions. Reducing emissions across the whole lifecycle of buildings will certainly be key to achieving net zero.
This article will explore the regulatory momentum of operational, whole life and embodied carbon emissions, including:
What is the difference between operational, embodied and whole life cycle carbon emissions?
Operational carbon emissions: those associated with the energy used to run a completed building. For example, heating, cooling, lighting and more. (Net Zero Carbon Guide, 2023)
Embodied carbon emissions: the total emissions caused by the materials and construction stages of a building. This includes emissions relating to the extraction, manufacture, transportation and assembly of every element in a building. (UKGBC, 2021)
Whole life-cycle carbon emissions: the carbon emissions deriving from the materials, construction and use of a building over its entire life, including its demolition and disposal. (Greater London Authority, 2022)
How are the built environment’s carbon emissions currently regulated in the UK?
Current UK government policies focus primarily on reducing operational emissions.
For example, in 2022 the government updated building regulations to include requirements that emissions from newly built homes be around 30% lower than the 2021 standards.
Another policy, The Future Homes Standard, aims to ensure that new homes built from 2025 produce 75-80% fewer carbon emissions than homes built under the current regulations.
These regulations aim to reduce the operational emissions of buildings by installing low-carbon technologies, such as solar panels and heat pumps, and increasing energy efficiency.
Embodied carbon is a key theme of industry net zero targets, frameworks and the government’s future carbon budgets. However, there is no current government policy that requires the assessment or control of embodied carbon emissions from buildings.
Nevertheless, reporting on and reducing embodied carbon allows a clearer understanding of the whole life and scope 3 emissions (LINK) of a build. It also reduces regulatory risks as embodied carbon becomes the next area of focus for net zero policies.
Despite the lack of current regulation, action is coming on embodied carbon.
The bill includes requirements for embodied carbon in buildings over 1,000m².
If passed, the reporting of whole-life carbon emissions within a building’s application would be legally required.
The development of the bill has come from pressures within the industry itself. Efforts have been spearheaded by the Plan Z proposal which has the backing of key stakeholders including the London Energy Transformation Initiative, the Concrete Centre and the Royal Institute of British Architects.
There is also momentum from local government.
Other countries in Europe already have policies in place that address whole life and embodied carbon emissions.
Within this policy, targets for reducing emissions will get progressively tighter each year and will apply to an increasingly wider scope of building projects.
The ratcheting of targets and progressive increase in scope of RE2020 aim to enable the French construction sector to reach net zero by 2050.
The ‘RE2020’ also takes a dynamic life-cycle approach that reflects the climate emergency by taking into account the time factor of emissions and, therefore, giving more weight to emissions produced now.
Leading industry stakeholders have come together to steer the industry in the right direction.
These industry-led initiatives show a growing consensus across the sector on the importance of whole life carbon reduction to reach net zero.
The government has set out its intention and action is currently in motion regarding reporting and restricting embodied carbon emissions.
Local governments and European countries have already set the precedent for these types of regulations setting out a clear path for the UK as a whole.
Efforts from inside the industry are also leading the way with guidance, policy proposals and measurement ferameworks.
The direction of travel for the industry is clear and it is a case of when, not if, this regulation will come into effect.
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