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Lauri Linkosalmi is Senior Manager, Product Stewardship Sustainability at Stora Enso. In this feature, Lauri writes about how the lack of transparency around embodied carbon when evaluating a building’s environmental credentials and how momentum behind the greater use of Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) in the construction industry might just plug the missing information into the green buildings equation.

“It’s strange to see something described as ‘fossil-fuel-free’ when it is made of concrete, steel and glass.”

So said Joe Giddings, coordinator of the Architects Climate Action Network (Acan), speaking recently to the Guardian. He was responding to plans for a new office block touted as ‘fossil-fuel-free’ as it was set to run on 100% renewable energy and have net zero operational carbon.

His implication was that any calculation that declares such a building ‘fossil-fuel-free’ is surely missing a major variable. So, how can we fix it? One powerful tool could be the hitherto underutilised environmental product declaration (EPD). There is momentum behind the greater use of EPDs in the industry, and they might just plug the missing information into the green buildings equation.

Why embodied carbon matters

Net zero operational carbon is not the same as net zero carbon. As Mr. Giddings points out, the materials the building is made of also count, and certain materials are extremely carbon-intensive to produce. This is known as ‘embodied carbon’, and as the article shows, it is too often the missing variable in the green buildings equation (or, as the Guardian puts it: “the dirty secret of so-called ‘fossil-fuel-free’ buildings”).

Today, buildings account for 39% of all end-use energy related emissions globally, with operational emissions responsible for 28% and embodied emissions for 11%. That’s a huge amount of carbon to leave unaccounted when evaluating a building’s environmental credentials.

Why are we only talking about operational carbon?

Broadly speaking, we can point to two reasons for the over-emphasis on operational carbon performance. One is a lack of focus from policymakers: buyers of anything from a house to a washing machine are now familiar with the regulatory-mandated energy performance certificates (a major factor in operational carbon), but sellers are obliged to provide no such information on embodied carbon.

But nor is that information typically available in a standardised format for sellers to provide to buyers. There are many investors who want to channel capital to greener buildings, and there are developers who want to build them – and they do care about embodied carbon. But so long as they lack data, they cannot agree benchmarks or share a common understanding as the basis for investment.

This is where we, as a broad green building industry, can make a difference. We don’t need to wait to be forced to provide this information, we can move ahead of regulation and take it into our own hands – and EPDs are the tools to do so.

The potential of EPDs

EPDs provide a harmonised method to communicate products’ environmental impacts. EPDs are based on robust life cycle assessments (LCAs) and can fill the void of data and allow developers, policymakers and architects to make informed decisions about buildings’ embodied carbon and to demonstrate it to their own stakeholders in turn.

Broadly, EPDs can help pave the way to a greener built environment in several ways.

First, they provide the right kind of information. EPDs are stadardised, but can vary partly from country to country and company to company however they generally include data on the carbon created during manufacturing and construction of the product, the carbon embodied within it at the use-stage, and end-of-life information, illustrating the carbon benefits of re-using, recycling or incinerating the product (in place of fossil fuels).

Second, EPDs give this information credibility. EPDs are recognised by LEED and BREEAM, among other market-based systems, to earn credits for projects. They are designed to be transparent, standardised and to use third-party verified information so that there can be stakeholder agreement on the carbon performance of products. So, our investor can now filter for projects that meet its embodied carbon parameters, and developers and architects know what standards they must design to.

Third, EPDs deliver credible information in a useful way. It’s one thing to receive information, it’s another to receive it in a structured, repeatable format that facilitates comparison between materials and designs. Building Information Modelling (BIM) software is beginning to integrate EPDs so that architects and developers can easily assess the embodied carbon of their designs and tweak them to find improvements. This is not yet standard, but given the pace at which software can change, it soon could be within a few years.

What’s the hold-up?

Reading this, you could be forgiven for thinking that EPDs are something new, invented just yesterday. In fact, they’ve been around decades now. This raises the question: if they are so good, why haven’t they caught on before now?  What challenges have prevented uptake and continue to slow it?

There are various factors. One is simply that this is difficult work that takes time. Standardisation groups emerged in the early 2000s, but it took a while for agreed processes to take hold and for the relevant data to be collected and verified. Then, by the time they began to mature, there was a global financial crisis to deal with, which hit the construction industry hard. But we recovered – 10 years ago you could count EPDs in the hundreds, now they are in the tens of thousands.

‘Push factors’ on the industry have also been weak. As discussed, policy emphasis was placed on energy performance, and end-consumer demand for green buildings has been slow-growing. It was a chicken-and-egg problem: which would come first, EPDs to show the industry how embodied carbon could be tackled, or industry demand for something that didn’t exist yet?

However, through the work of forward-thinking industry players and trade associations, such as the Structural Timber Association, the deadlock seems to have been broken. At Stora Enso, we have developed EPDs for nearly 100 per cent of our structural timber products, which are gaining traction in the industry. We recognise that when companies are doing EPDs they are learning from their emissions and using this information to improve operations, efficiency and raw-material selection. With this in mind, the whole building material sector has an opportunity to lower fossil-fuel emissions and serve a better and cleaner construction industry.

It may take some time before pressure mounts sufficiently for more carbon-intensive material producers to relent and provide EPDs, but a future is in sight where architects, developers, investors and policymakers have these powerful tools at their disposal to finally solve the green buildings equation. Once they do, there will be fewer ‘dirty secrets’ and more genuinely green buildings that help – rather than hinder – the global decarbonisation progress.

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