No one listened to engineer Anthony Pak when he first tried to explain the importance of embodied carbon to his Canadian colleagues.

“It was like crickets. Nobody cared,” says Pak, a Vancouver-based building engineer and policy adviser.

Embodied carbon refers to the carbon footprint derived from all building materials, from inception to destruction. It includes all the emissions used to extract and transport raw materials, as well as the emissions from the building process, a building’s inner fixtures and demolition at the end of its lifetime. A life-cycle assessment (LCA) is the scientific method used to quantify the environmental impacts of a building’s lifespan.

Pak recalls returning home in 2012 all fired up from his master’s studies in Norway to encounter indifference from others in his profession. But since then, he has been working closely with building owners, designers and policymakers to spread the word through his firm, Priopta, one of the first in North America to provide LCAs and advice on embodied carbon reduction.

For a long time, efforts to minimize emissions in the building sector have been focused on operational emissions through interventions involving heating and cooling systems or renewable energy sources that make buildings more energy-efficient once built, Pak says.

But if you’re designing green buildings with the idea that you’re saving the planet and not considering embodied carbon, you’re missing half of the equation, Pak wrote.

The built environment, which includes the operations and construction of buildings and infrastructure, is currently the single largest contributor to global CO2 emissions and generates about 40 per cent of total emissions, according to a 2024 report from the World Economic Forum. Zooming in, embodied carbon emissions contribute about 10 per cent globally.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development reports that embodied carbon accounts for approximately 50 per cent of an average building’s lifetime emissions, most of which occur before the building becomes operational.

“Embodied carbon is the blind spot of the building industry. It’s historically been neglected but it’s actually a really sizable source of emissions and environmental impacts,” Pak adds.

For a long time, efforts to minimize emissions in the building sector have been focused on operational emissions. Green building design that doesn't account for embodied carbon is missing half the equation.

Slowly but surely, through consultations with both public and private stakeholders, Pak’s perseverance to make embodied carbon matter in Canada is starting to pay off. Consulting with provincial government bodies, Pak’s work has helped to inform policy changes.

In November 2020, Vancouver city council set a goal of reducing embodied carbon in construction by 40 per cent by 2030 as part of its Climate Emergency Action Plan. In May 2022, city council approved further changes to the Vancouver building bylaw to require designers to calculate, limit and, later, reduce embodied carbon in some new builds. Last year, the city also released embodied carbon guidelines, providing technical guidance on how to calculate a project’s embodied carbon benchmark and limit totals that need to be submitted to the city.

Vancouver estimates the reduction requirements could prevent up to 100,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions each year, according to the World Economic Forum.

Pak’s work in Vancouver is making a difference at both the national and international levels.

Vancouver is one of the furthest ahead in terms of implementing requirements into code in North America, says Pak, so other folks at the federal level and internationally are definitely looking closely at what Vancouver is doing.

At the end of 2022, the federal government introduced a new standard on embodied carbon in construction, requiring the disclosure of a 10 per cent reduction in the embodied carbon footprint of structural materials in government projects.

More and more people in the industry are starting to grasp the importance of embodied carbon, so the key question now is the right way to roll this out, says Pak.

Last month, Pak’s efforts won him an award at the second annual BC Embodied Carbon Awards. The award ceremony is the first of its kind in North America and Pak was finally recognized — for his dedication to the practice of reducing embodied carbon across the province’s built environment.

Keep reading

If you have time, this recorded presentation regarding embedded carbon by Chris Magwood is very informative. Magwood has (co)authored many books on sustainable building.

https://youtu.be/5_GkSBoX7mE?si=894URhGYHcZduQ7M

Very informative article! Thanks.