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Three benefits of thinking about embodied carbon in project planning

Sustainability By Michael Olden, Electrical Engineer – 18 August 2023

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Michael Olden

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Striving towards zero operational carbon is a desirable goal and essential for the transition to a net zero built environment. However, it is not the entire end game. As the grid decarbonises, energy-efficiency improves and on-site renewables are installed wherever it is feasible, the spotlight shifts to embodied carbon.

Embodied carbon can commonly be associated with the emissions released during the lifecycle of building materials, such as concrete and steel, through the extraction, manufacturing, transport, construction, and disposal.

However, it’s not only the lifecycle of building materials that should be considered, but also that of the equipment used to operate the building. Everything from lights, to switchboards, to heat pumps and chillers will have an embodied carbon footprint.

When a client is transitioning towards zero operational carbon through electrification and renewable strategies, it is crucial not to overlook the impact of embodied carbon and the advantages that prioritising the embodied carbon of new equipment can bring.

Here’s three good reasons to have the upfront and embodied carbon conversation

When design, construction and client all align to prioritise minimising embodied carbon in equipment selection, this positions everyone involved ahead of the competition. It also contributes to ensuring that each organisation’s overall carbon footprint is minimised, because the emissions of projects or owned assets fall to those who have control over them. So, the designer still specifying gas-burning plant, along with the builder and the client are all accruing an emissions liability with that decision.

Foresight is also an advantage both in reputation and for mitigating future financial liabilities and risks. Carbon neutrality is starting to become the new benchmark for good business, which means emissions must be audited and balanced with purchasing of offsets to achieve net zero. Lowering emissions through good decision-making is therefore a sound cost-saving strategy.

Local supply chains – lower footprint, lower risk

When considering new equipment or plant for your buildings, sourcing locally is a small step that can reduce embodied carbon emissions and provide further financial benefits.

For a start, sourcing local products cuts down on transportation costs and carbon emissions related to long-distance shipping. It also reduces vulnerabilities in relation to disruptions to global shipping schedules from unforeseen events including natural disasters or misadventure such as the blockage of the Suez Canal in 2021, which sent shockwaves of delay through global supply chains which lasted for months.

Selecting local equipment also allows you to have greater awareness and control over quality, ensuring that you invest in durable and reliable products. Quality equipment with a longer life expectancy not only minimises the need for frequent repairs but also reduces maintenance costs over time.

By prioritising equipment that is built to last, you can save on operational expenses and avoid the embodied carbon emissions associated with the production and transportation of replacement parts.

The market has shifted

In a rapidly changing market, sustainability is becoming a driving force behind consumer choices. Embracing this challenge now will position you ahead of competitors who may still lag in their embodied carbon reduction efforts. With the global shift towards eco-conscious practices, you will be better prepared to navigate future regulations and market demands.

By embracing a holistic approach to carbon emissions, you demonstrate your adaptability, foresight, and leadership in a world increasingly focused on sustainability.

As an electrical engineer, there are three things I am incorporating into how I design that will support clients who are ready to have the embodied carbon reduction conversation:

  • Firstly, as mentioned earlier, advocating for local product specifications to ensure products are built to last and limit transportation.
  • Secondly, re-using equipment for ongoing projects to minimise upfront embodied carbon and reduce costs.
  • Finally, challenging standards through modelling and calculations of real-life data to avoid unnecessary oversizing of infrastructure.