Whole Life Carbon - Tools for Competitive Advantage

James Blackwood
A sustainable built environment focuses not only on operational carbon, but also on the reduction of embodied carbon – the impact of CO2 emissions generated during the manufacture, transport and construction of building materials, together with end of life emissions.

UK government chief construction adviser Paul Morrell suggests that all projects should have whole life carbon assessments. But without a fiscal or regulatory driver in place, embodied carbon is the poor relation of the more prominent operational carbon effort.

You can’t manage what you can’t measure. So the next stage of the carbon journey is to find a consistent, economically-sustainable approach to whole-life carbon.

  • Existing ‘free-market’ systems for emissions control such as ETS (Emissions Trading Scheme) rely on detailed measurement and reporting systems that adhere to well-defined standards.
  • Fiscal mechanisms for carbon reduction such as CRC (Carbon Reduction Commitment – a carbon tax), and any future carbon taxation mechanisms, will similarly rely on an increasingly sophisticated and automated approach.
  • The tipping point at which whole-life carbon becomes the target of fiscal, statutory or market-led reduction is unclear – but it’s likely to be a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘whether’. 
  • The key is to use information systems in a flexible way. 
  • Systems should address the issues of data availability and reliable benchmarks. 
  • Data is often gathered in a proprietary manner, resulting in disparate information sources which do not automatically lend themselves to inter-disciplinary perspectives. 
  • With the right information systems, protocols for data interchange and industry support, information gathered globally could be shared openly and consistently. 
  • Organisations could then concentrate on using that information to make better decisions – the real source of competitive advantage.
  • The challenge

    How do you quantify and reduce whole-life carbon across a global business in a consistent, comparable way?

    Standards and methodologies have their place. There needs to be a way to ‘level the field’ – much like modern financial standards, each carbon declaration must be comparable, verified and trusted. But the economic viability of carbon management relies upon having the right tools for the job and managing a sometimes vast quantity of information.

    The BIM-driven trend towards integrated design, construction and management of assets requires a similarly flexible approach underpinned by technology and information. If BIM becomes mandatory on all but the smallest publicly funded projects, we would expect it to incorporate a whole life carbon element supported by the principles above.

    Together with our parent company Atkins, Faithful+Gould has developed a comprehensive suite of carbon tools to help organisations make decisions on how to reduce embodied and operational carbon and to influence designs to best achieve this. We are also active at policy level and RICS has commissioned us to lead an embodied carbon task group to author a soon-to-be-launched industry standard.