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Reducing Carbon – More Than Heating, Cooling, Lights and Plug Loads

A better understanding of embedded carbon and its environmental impact can help us choose products with a reduced carbon load.

A trowel rests casually on a stack of cement tiles.
December 2, 2019

A carbon footprint is defined as the total emissions caused by an individual, event, organization or product. In terms of buildings, it has traditionally been measured by calculating the energy used by a building or even a person. However it’s measurement is affected by the products we use, and by the carbon embedded in the buildings where we live, work and play.

Reducing carbon isn’t a new concept, but most of the focus has been on operational carbon reduction or trying to create net-zero energy buildings, according to UL’s Director of Environmental Codes and Standards Josh Jacobs.

“Embedded carbon is about how much carbon it takes to create flooring, paint or insulation,” Jacobs said. “You can then utilize that knowledge to understand whether a product is saving more energy than it takes to produce. If it takes more carbon to make a product than it saves, that’s a trade-off you need to consider.”

What makes a building sustainable?  

Examining a building’s embedded carbon looks at sustainability from a different angle than more traditional approaches, such as net-zero energy and environmental health and safety. Net-zero energy strategies traditionally employ renewable energy products and methodologies such as photovoltaic (PV) cells, daylighting and ENERGY STAR® appliances to reduce energy use and the carbon load. We consider this the “old world” way of looking at sustainability. The effect the environment has on human health and well-being — where things like air filtration, ventilation, air quality testing and UL GREENGUARD Certified products come into play — looks at sustainability from a human health perspective.  

The embedded carbon view considers how much energy and how many resources are involved in the full life cycle of a product or building, all the way through its construction, operation and disposal.

“In the next 30 years, the embedded carbon in our buildings is going to account for 49% of the carbon impact our buildings have,” Jacobs said. “So far, people have only been addressing half of the problem. People need to understand the impact and make choices based on those impacts.”

Environmental Product Declarations

Builders and architects can make decisions about the embedded carbon in projects by using the UL SPOT® Product Database. With building materials and products from the over 1,000 Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) found on SPOT, stakeholders can start to understand the true carbon impact of the building. Jacobs expects more items to have EPDs as demand in the marketplace continues to increase.

Jacobs suggests thinking of an EPD like a nutrition label. Understanding your product is the first step, making choices is the second. Instead of fat or protein content, an EPD states the amount of global warming potential and other environmental impacts it takes in producing a product. Checking EPDs for environmental impacts is becoming increasingly important as companies continue to look at being transparent about their impact on the environment.

“We’ve had a number of companies from around the world come to us to release their EPDs,” Jacobs said. “Normally the company will look at their own full life cycle, then our experts will verify the Environmental Product Declaration, which is a simplification of all that data. We have worked with hundreds of product manufacturers on this, from floor-to-ceiling doors to insulation and hardware. More and more of the building industry is interested in this.”

Building rating systems, LEED, BREAM and Green Globes, have criteria for EPDs in their rating systems, and the International Green Construction Code, ASHRAE 189.1 and NAHB National Green Building standard also account for EPDs in their criteria, which can be used to apply for tax credits in some jurisdictions. In addition, the State of California’s Buy Clean California Act uses EPDs in four product categories to help set maximum global warming limits for state purchased product categories, according to Jacobs.

EPDs can also have an unintended side effect. They can show differences within a company’s supply chain.

“Say you have a product made in Seattle and a product made in Atlanta. When you look at your EPDs, you could understand why the one from Seattle uses less energy to create than the one in Atlanta,” Jacobs said. “You can find out if there is less of an environmental impact, and then make changes to the systems to be a better environmental steward. Many companies are trying to act better environmentally not because it’s good for the environment, but they are seeing that it can be positive to their bottom lines. The stocks of public companies are being impacted daily due to sustainability impacts, and carbon accounting is starting to have the same consequences.”

For more information on UL SPOT, visit https://spot.ul.com/. For more information about UL’s sustainability efforts, read the latest issue of On the Mark® at https://www.ul.com/news/mark-sustainability-issue.

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