Embodied Carbon: The Road to Allowable Solutions

Sean Lockie
Embodied carbon is becoming more widely accepted by developers and demanded by clients. This year’s Embodied Carbon Week clearly illustrated the industry's growing awareness and respect for this environmental assessment.

What is embodied carbon? It is the carbon dioxide emitted during the manufacture, transport and construction of building materials and during the building’s lifecycle as assets get replaced. It is distinct to operational carbon, which is the carbon dioxide emitted during the lifetime of a building. According to research by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), embodied carbon can account for up to 60% of a building’s whole life emissions (depending on the building type) and many of the solutions to provide zero carbon operations are likely to have high carbon intensity. This means that by 2016 for residential and by 2019 for non-dwellings, embodied carbon will make up a significant proportion of a building's carbon footprint.

According to research by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), embodied carbon can account for up to 60% of a building’s whole life emissions...

Some local authorities in the UK have already included mandatory cradle-to-gate embodied carbon assessments as part of their planning process (e.g. Brighton and Hove City Council). Other sectors have embraced embodied carbon too, for instance it is used quite extensively throughout the water sector. It has been part of Environment Agency assessments for over a decade and is mandated by the water regulator OFWAT. Anglian water alone has published over 50 case studies on embodied carbon.

However, it still faces a number of issues before it is more widely accepted throughout the property sector. One major hurdle to wider adoption is that embodied carbon is not currently required under the Part L building regulations. One of the reasons for this is disagreement over how to calculate embodied carbon and that you obviously can’t put a meter on it. Quite naturally property developers and quantity surveyors want a simple agreed methodology to measure and calculate embodied carbon and enforcers like the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Treasury want a watertight system with clear assessment boundaries and agreed methodologies.

Launched in May 2014, the Methodology to calculate embodied carbon is the first RICS guidance note to cover emissions during multiple life cycle stages...

So now, after several years of research and discussion, the RICS has just finished the final draft of a new guidance note on embodied carbon, with myself and my colleague Piotr Berebecki as lead authors. Launched in May 2014, the Methodology to calculate embodied carbon is the first RICS guidance note to cover emissions during multiple life cycle stages (construction, use and end of life). Its aim is to provide a framework of practical guidance for quantity surveyors on how to calculate embodied carbon and, crucially, for it to be more accessible to everyday surveyors than the current British Standard EN 15978: 2011.

The RICS guidance note also attempts to address two important recommendations from Paul Morrell's last report on low carbon construction from the HM Government Innovation and Growth Team (IGT):

Recommendation 2.1 - that as soon as a sufficiently rigorous assessment system is in place, the Treasury should introduce into the Green Book a requirement to conduct a whole-life (embodied and operational) carbon appraisal and that this is factored into feasibility studies on the basis of a realistic price for carbon.

Recommendation 2.2 - that the industry should agree with Government a standard method of measuring embodied carbon.

With the new guidance note we have hopefully now fulfilled the latter recommendation, and in combination with the recently launched WRAP embodied carbon database, which provides useful benchmarks, we know what 'good' looks like.

Is the new methodology robust enough so that it could become an Allowable Solution?

But, what about the first? Is the new methodology robust enough so that it could become an Allowable Solution? I genuinely think so and I’m not alone in that. Clearly embodied carbon is close to my heart, but if it becomes an Allowable Solution, then this really will tip it into the mainstream and provide a clear economic stimulus to calculate it. The price cap of Allowable Solutions is still to be determined, with three options on the table; £36, £60 and £90 per tonne of CO². However, once that is agreed then the RICS guidance note should provide the clear methodology the Treasury Department needs for whole-life carbon appraisals to become mandatory.

Whether myself and other experts at the RICS can convince the Treasury of that is another question. But, with enough government support, embodied carbon should soon hopefully enter the Green Book for good.