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A 2030 Challenge for Building Product Manufacturers

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Reducing carbon emissions rapidly within the next 20 years is critical to averting disastrous climate change. Because carbon impacts of building products are disproportionately high over the first 20 years of a building's life (they become less significant compared to operational carbon over 100 years or more), a focus on products could help "front-load" carbon reductions in the building sector.

Source: Adapted by Larry Strain, FAIA, from “Heat,” by George Monbiot

By Paula Melton

The 2030 Challenge has just broadened its scope. Formerly focused on the climate impact of building operations (operational carbon), the nonprofit Architecture 2030 has now issued an additional challenge regarding the climate impact of building products (embodied carbon).

The 2030 Challenge for Products aims to reduce the embodied carbon (meaning the carbon emissions equivalent) of building products 50% by 2030. According to the organization, 5%–8% of total energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. result from the manufacture and transport of building products and the construction of buildings. Cutting those emissions in half would be like permanently shutting down 222 coal-fired power plants.

The 2030 plan

With more than 100 different product categories to be addressed, the 2030 Challenge for Products has a lot of details to sort out. Architecture 2030 plans to spend the next two years finalizing product category rules (PCRs), including product-specific carbon benchmarks based on current life-cycle averages, a process the organization hopes will lead to “a harmonization of standards.”

As with the 2030 Challenge for buildings, the 2030 Challenge for Products has started by setting broad guidelines and interim targets. These goals, says Architecture 2030, apply to all new developments, new buildings, and renovations:

• The carbon footprint of covered products should be reduced 30% by 2014; 35% by 2015; 40% by 2020; 45% by 2025; and 50% by 2030.

• Manufacturers wishing to participate will commission a life-cycle assessment (LCA) of at least one product, calculating the carbon footprint; LCA results will be submitted to moderators developing the PCRs for each category, so current industry averages can be established for benchmarking starting in 2014.

• LCAs will be cradle-to-grave profiles and use measurements from actual local energy sources.

• Once benchmarks are established, manufacturers will commission Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), which standardize data across product categories, in order to track their progress toward embodied carbon goals.

• Carbon footprint data for individual products will be available to designers, planners, specifiers, and builders through a variety of channels, including BuildingGreen’s GreenSpec database of products and the Pharos online screening tool.

• Architecture 2030 will not certify products; participation requires manufacturers’ own reporting based on commissioned EPDs.

High stakes

The process may be long and difficult, given the number of product categories under review, but the stakes are high, according to Architecture 2030’s founder Ed Mazria, FAIA. PCRs and the related LCAs are not currently standardized, and this effort could go a long way toward establishing comprehensive, industry-wide norms for a variety of product categories. “Architects and designers have an opportunity to promote low-carbon building products for the projects they design and the hundreds of thousands of products they specify,” Mazria said. “By requiring that building products undergo a rigorous, scientific analysis of their carbon-equivalent footprints, designers can catalyze a movement towards dramatically reducing the embodied greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) of the product sector.”


The 2030 Challenge for Products, launched February 14th, is a "Valentine to the planet" that builds on the momentum of the 2030 Challenge for buildings.

Image: Architecture 2030

Once the operational carbon of a building is reduced, as many are working to do, the relative importance of embodied carbon increases. Embodied carbon represents a small percentage (about 10% for a typical office building) of the lifetime carbon footprint of a conventional building, but it represents virtually the entire carbon footprint of a so-called “net-zero” building.

Larry Strain, FAIA, of Siegel & Strain Architects in California, told EBN that carbon from products is of more importance than is commonly recognized. Due to the dynamics of climate change, “The next 10–20 years are going to be critical years in addressing GHG emissions,” he said. “If you look at embodied carbon versus operational carbon over the life of a building—say 100 years—the embodied carbon might represent 10%–15% of the overall carbon. But if you consider embodied carbon over the next 20 years it represents more like 30%–60% of total carbon emitted.”

“Using the power of the pen,” Mazria says, “designers can provide the necessary demand to move this field forward quickly. This is critical in helping us meet the GHG reduction targets established by the scientific community to avert dangerous climate change.”

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Comments (1)

1 A bit of caution posted by Michael Brown on 04/21/2011 at 05:18 pm

It's good to focus some attention on the life cycle of building materials and their impacts on climate. But I’m worried that such a single minded focus may result in institutionalizing products and technologies that achieve carbon reductions at the cost of increasing other environmental impacts. We’ve already seen that with the increase in use of CFLs and the resulting mercury exposure issues (trading coal-related emissions for localized emissions due to product breakage and disposal) and are starting to see it with LEDs and the potential need for disposing of them as hazardous waste. Sometimes the trade-offs are well known and can be weighed and considered. Other times we have gone forward blindly using products and technologies with little understanding of their overall effects on human health and the environment. While LCA is a somewhat useful tool for extending that understanding, it tells a partial story—LCAs demonstrate the energy and GHG emissions of LEDs, but don’t do a very good job of identifying regulatory issues. I would hope that both the 2030 Challenge and EBN recognize the need for caution in pushing products with reduced GHG emissions quickly into the marketplace when we do not really understand the trade-offs in impacts.

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February 14, 2011