Buildings have immense impact on greenhouse gas emissions, specifically the emission of carbon, whichgreatly adds to climate change. The global surface temperature is warming year after year, with human activity greatly adding to the problem. We see the affects of global warming in the news constantly: extreme weather patterns, mudslides, wildfires of greater intensity with increased fire seasons, and hurricanes with greater ferocity.
Carbon levels have shot up sharply since the middle of the 20th century, and scientists have found a direct correlation between carbon dioxide (CO2) levels, warming global temperatures and rising sea levels. Much of the carbon in the atmosphere is from the burning of fossil fuels, such as gas, oil, and coal. Without drastic reductions in our emissions, the increase in global temperatures will be catastrophic. But if we act now, we can keep levels below a 2˚C increase, which is generally considered to be the tipping point.
How can changes in the way we build help in the fight against climate change? When it comes to energy consumption in the United States, buildings account for 47.6% of all energy consumption. Instead of thinking about operational energy consumption, we should be thinking about the embodied energy consumption that goes into the manufacturing of building materials and the building construction process. Embodied carbon refers to the greenhouse gases released all along the supply chain vs. the gases released as a result of operating the building — and the embodied carbon in the production of building materials is what we should be specifically targeting.
What does this mean for the construction industry? It means that our time has come to reanalyze the way we manufacture building products and the types of materials we put into our buildings. Our goals should be to encourage the production of lower embodied-carbon products, develop more sustainable products, reduce the amount of materials used in the building, and incorporate low carbon materials into building design. Past experience tells us that If enough builders and architects specify lower carbon materials, then the manufacturers will produce them.