For this reason, integrating whole-life carbon considerations and tackling embodied emissions go hand in hand with the efficiency first principle to ensure energy demand reduction efforts are fully aligned with climate targets. Indeed, our latest policy recommendations highlight that both energy and carbon metrics are required to decarbonise the building stock. Additionally, beyond reducing whole-life carbon emissions and energy waste, we also need to build and renovate buildings which are healthy and safe for people to live and work in.
Furthermore, reducing whole-life carbon emissions simultaneously contributes to limiting resource depletion and reducing pollution. The principles and actions to mitigate whole-life carbon emissions are the same as improving circularity (e.g. reuse, reduce, avoid over-specifications, consider local aspects and passive solutions, improve building resilience, flexibility and adaptability, extend the lifespan of buildings and components, improve recyclability). And these principles are certainly applicable to the construction sector: whole-life carbon considerations not only apply to materials but equally to processes, including improving material flows, enhancing productivity, eliminating waste and reducing delays, which are all important factors to increase the competitiveness and environmental performance of the sector.
Ongoing policy revisions an opportunity to integrate whole-life carbon roadmap
Without accounting for whole-life carbon, there is a risk that construction and renovation decisions ignore these hidden emissions. Thus, considering lifecycle carbon is equally relevant for both new construction and renovations, and can inform which materials and services should be used to achieve lower emissions over the entire lifecycle of the asset.
And this is something that we’re slowly starting to see happen. In its Renovation Wave strategy which addresses decarbonisation of the building stock, the European Commission announced its intention to introduce a ‘2050 whole life-cycle performance roadmap to reduce carbon emissions from buildings’ by 2023.
Though this proposal is certainly a big step forward, we shouldn’t wait to include whole life cycle thinking into our policy framework and should seize the opportunity of the ongoing policy revisions to carefully think about how whole-life carbon could be harmonised, embedded and coordinated within legislation such as the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), the Energy Efficiency Directive and the Construction Products Regulation (all of which are undergoing review). A full and comprehensive legislative revision is needed and a whole-life carbon roadmap shouldn’t be tagged on as something additional later on – we rather need to define how the whole regulatory framework will work together and plan for that now.
When EU countries decide on decarbonisation pathways, the building sector must be treated as a priority. Choosing a “buildings first” approach focusing on both operational and embodied carbon reductions, ahead of grid decarbonisation, will ensure that the co-benefits of building renovation are realised, but also costly investments in energy infrastructure are avoided. The decarbonisation of the energy supply is bound to have some negative externalities or limitations, such as land requirements for biomass or specific materials for wind and solar power. To keep these negative externalities to a minimum, it is necessary to reduce the total final energy demand by increasing the efficiency level. Already now in 2021 we know that whole-life carbon policies are possible – and very desirable. Highly efficient and fully decarbonised buildings have to be a strong pillar of a climate-neutral Europe.