How do we cut the carbon locked up in our development projects and respond to upcoming legislation?

20 Jan 21

The built environment accounts for approximately 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint. This has reduced significantly since 1990, largely due to improvements in the energy efficiency of new buildings and the effects of the UK energy decarbonisation. However, with some 80% of current building stock expected to remain in 2050, much of this outstanding footprint is already locked up as embodied carbon within existing structures.

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The end of 2020 saw a flurry of global activity in the fight against climate change. Notably, China, Japan and South Korea are committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century. The USA is expected to rejoin the fight following Biden’s election. All eyes will be on Glasgow when it hosts the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November.

In December 2019, the PM published his Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, providing a framework for the latest energy white paper, which seeks to decarbonise the UK power supply as far as possible by 2050.

However, with such an emphasis on decarbonising energy supply, what can be done within the built environment to further realise the UK’s carbon dioxide emission reduction targets?

The built environment accounts for approximately 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint. This has reduced significantly since 1990, largely due to improvements in the energy efficiency of new buildings and the effects of the UK energy decarbonisation. However, with some 80% of current building stock expected to remain in 2050, much of this outstanding footprint is already locked up as embodied carbon within existing structures.

Calculating and reducing a building’s lifetime carbon dioxide emissions, from initial material extraction, through to demolition, remains a major challenge, requiring vast quantities of data. The Building Carbon Database, launched by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) in 2019, provides carbon data associated with an array of material components, including those related to material extraction, transport and processing. However, the Database does not cover all materials employed in the UK’s building stock, despite new data continually provided by users.

The Database is useful when accounting for commonly used materials or those for which information is readily available from the manufacturer. However, where manufacturers’ declarations of materials are unavailable, or where bespoke materials are employed, the Database offers only an industry standard value for the more complex materials required for building structures. Specific data is needed to fully understand the embodied carbon emissions associated with the built environment, and how the industry can reduce these through good design principles in new development proposals.

An incomplete dataset should not slow down assessment of carbon emissions, as clearly demonstrated in the Publication London Plan (amended December 2020), which strongly supports the analysis of embodied carbon within development projects and contains policy requiring detailed assessment as part of planning applications. This will require both architects and consultants to develop skills to assess and reduce embodied carbon at the planning stage – Iceni Futures is already well-placed to undertake this as part of its broader service analysing how to cut carbon across the built environment.

Now is the time to ready ourselves to assess and reduce the carbon associated with our buildings across their lifetimes, not just whilst in use. Please contact us at Iceni Futures for more information.

Read more about how Iceni Futures can support your project here.

Listen to Iceni Futures’ Director discuss future proofing buildings on the LifeProven podcast.

Grace Wileman Futures Consultant