Cover of the report Making Embodied Carbon Mainstream

A guide to using existing policy foundations as a gateway to reducing embodied carbon in the built environment.

Local and regional governments have opportunities to build on pathways within their existing waste, equity and preservation policies to reduce embodied carbon in the built environment.

That is a key finding in the new PICS report, Making Embodied Carbon Mainstream: A guide for local and regional governments to reduce embodied carbon in the built environment. 

Embodied carbon—which is the emissions from extracting, manufacturing and transporting building materials—is grabbing attention as an untapped opportunity at the frontier of climate action. But it can be daunting for local government to tackle due to competing budgetary demands and limited in-house capacity. 

This guide proposes that governments can address the substance of embodied carbon without adopting a whole new suite of technical tools. Instead it outlines potential approaches to reducing embodied carbon around existing policies of:

  • Waste: Reinforcing the drive to zero waste, communities can prioritize green demolition, deconstruction, and material salvage. 
  • Equity: Responding to the demand for housing equity, communities can support affordable housing retrofits and workforce development. 
  • Preservation: Deepening a longstanding pursuit of preservation, communities can extend commitments to building reuse and initiate low carbon retrofits. 
Figure 4.
Fig.4 Waste, equity and preservation are existing policy domains of urgent and longstanding concern which present significant overlaps with central strategies for reducing embodied carbon. 

Report author Hannah Teicher says building on existing policy foundations can bring embodied carbon from the margins to the mainstream. 

“Making strong links to a larger urban agenda offers a way to forge buy-in from a wide range of stakeholders and to build coalitions with active interest groups,” Dr. Teicher says. “Local governments can use these efforts to enhance their profile as climate champions, demonstrating a commitment to emissions beyond their borders. And smaller, lower growth cities, so often on the periphery of community climate action, can play an active role, focusing on their existing building stock.”

While more knowledge is needed to fully develop embodied carbon policy, especially in areas such as integrating embodied and operational emissions, this approach provides a feasible way for communities to act now. 

Fig.1 Considering embodied carbon offers a more holistic perspective on the impact of construction, extending to every stage of the lifecycle rather than the narrow perspective of operations alone. Diagram Source.

Read the report, available on the PICS website. This research was undertaken with the valued input and support of more than 30 built environment stakeholders.