The Race to Track and Eliminate ’Embodied’ Emissions from Buildings
Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden are the five EU countries that have passed laws to regulate the whole-life carbon emissions from buildings. However, the EU doesn't want to follow suit and instead wants to measure the emissions from building materials.
According to official EU statistics, the building sector is a well-known greenhouse gas emitter: 40% of EU emissions and 36% of final energy use stems from buildings.
This is due mainly to the energy used by heating, lighting, and other appliances, but a lesser-known factor is the emissions associated with building materials.
Whether it be cement, wood, glass, bricks or sand, every material comes with its own climate cost and reducing these emissions will be crucial to reaching the EU’s objective of becoming climate neutral by 2050.
According to available statistics, cement production accounts for about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, although for the EU, that figure is “just” 3%. And while the sector’s emissions are trending downwards, full decarbonisation is still a long way off.
The brick industry relies on fossil fuels for heat, with gas being the most popular source in Europe. Two-thirds of all bricks are made in China, where environmental standards are not as strict, and there is no price on carbon. In Europe, the glass industry emits about 22 million tonnes of CO2, or about 1% of total industrial emissions.
Overall, Danish engineers think that 10–20% of building emissions come from making building materials, building, remodelling, and tearing down buildings.
The World Green Building Council says that 11% of the world's emissions come from the carbon that is built into buildings. “Buildings also account for around 50% of all extracted materials, 33% of water consumption, and 35% of waste generated,” the association highlighted.
As knowledge of the issue improves, some companies in the sector have started speaking out in favour of more ambition on embodied carbon.
“We need to focus on reducing emissions today – both operational and embodied carbon,” says Jakob Thaysen Rørbech, senior director in charge of standardisation and technical performance at Danish window maker Velux.
“Numbers from Denmark show that CO2 emissions from the use phase in new buildings only represent around 25% of the total CO2 emissions,” Rørbech said.
“The remaining 75% come, for example, from the sourcing and manufacturing of materials, transport and construction work, but also maintenance and reuse processes,” he added.
Despite the growing body of evidence, only five EU countries – Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden – have passed laws to regulate the whole-life carbon emissions from buildings.
For further moves, all eyes are turning to the EU, which is revamping its energy performance of buildings directive (EPBD).
As part of the updated directive, the European Commission suggested that the life-cycle global warming potential (GWP) of new buildings be used to figure out how to keep track of emissions in the sector.
The obligation would start on January 1, 2027, for new buildings bigger than 2,000 square metres. It would start on January 1, 2030, for other buildings.