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Simple solutions to global problems: Why we got behind Embodied Carbon Week

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Simple solutions to global problems: Why we got behind Embodied Carbon WeekIain McIlwee, BWF Chief Executive

Some stark facts rang out during Embodied Carbon Week last week:

–    The embodied carbon constructing a new UK house is equivalent to over 20 years operational carbon emission.
–    Using wood as an alternative to other materials saves almost a tonne of CO2 per cubic metre.

Yet amidst these startling revelations the political engagement was disappointing.  Realising the value of embodied carbon is key to achieving zero carbon homes and meeting our responsibilities under the Climate Change Agreement.  I attended an excellent debate hosted by the ASBP on regulating for Embodied Carbon and the vote was emphatic – "The measurement of embodied carbon should be included within 2019 zero carbon definitions for non-domestic buildings" – speaking for the motion David Mason of Skanska stressed the need for embodied and operational carbon measurements alongside each other, and that this should start as soon as possible, other speakers including Andrew Carpenter from the Structural Timber Association recognised the need for a cultural shift.  Interestingly, of the three speaking against the motion, two recognised the importance of the principle, and one simply favoured taxation as a means to the same ends.

Simple solutions to global problems: Why we got behind Embodied Carbon WeekThroughout Embodied Carbon Week we were reminded of Paul Morrell’s findings in his report on low carbon construction for HM Government by the Innovation and Growth Team (IGT) (HM Government 2010) where he concludes that embodied carbon is an important factor that needs to be brought into the systems used for appraisal of projects and hence into the design decisions made in developing projects. 

It is disappointing at this critical time, with leading players in the Construction Sector, such as BAM, Skanska, RIBA, the RICS emphasising the significance, the Housing Standards Review appears to have looked the other way.  The review is positive and in essence, well meaning, but failing to address this element of sustainability would not have impacted anticipated gains in housing growth and misses a fantastic opportunity.  By ducking this issue we risk falling behind our European competitors  – in Germany it is a matter of course to account for carbon in construction, in the Netherlands, it is a matter of law, in France it will be law next year and in the UK it is something we seem to be holding out hope that Europe will solve for us.

Simple solutions to global problems: Why we got behind Embodied Carbon WeekWe recommend setting up a working party to review the verification route for embodied carbon as an Allowable Solution.  Through Environmental Product Declarations, the emergence of EN15804 and new standards such as BREEAM Homes, this should be a relatively easy and swift task.  There is opportunity that to embracing embodied carbon, to use this currency to help us meet our climate change responsibilities and, if structured well offer, financial rewards to the market, remove any need to legislate further by rewarding rather than taxing or writing reams of complex legislation.  This simple change will help the UK Construction sector be truly world class and reap the rewards of this globally. 

We applaud the efforts made during embodied carbon week and commend the Green Building Council for raising the profile of this vital issue.  We wiill be following up in the weeks and months to come to emphasise and build on the vital messages that were raised. I have below linked to some of key events we supported and my highlights of Embodied Carbon Week:

Wood First Plus Timber LCA Database Launched at the Building Centre

WRAP Embodied Carbon Database Launched

ASBP: Embodied Carbon: Why, how and when? Debate

RICS:  Embodied Carbon – Relevance, Guidance and Methodology

A fabulous introduction to embodied carbon from Circular Economy

Excellent Blog from BAM on the importance of Embodied Carbon

You can follow BWF twitter feed to see some of our live tweets from these events via 

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Passive Fire Protection Federation
Trade Association Forum
The Alliance for Sustainable Building Products