Why we need a long term view in a short term world

28 Feb 2022

Published in: Building, February 2022

Government and the construction industry need to put more focus on whole life carbon, says Elaine Toogood

There are no shortage of headlines about distractions in British politics at the moment. The Partygate scandal was recently cited as the reason that embodied carbon was not given enough airtime by senior MPs during a Ten Minute Rule Bill debate led by backbenchers.   

It’s perhaps ironic then that a short term and simplistic focus on embodied carbon from some in Westminster and industry could be a distraction to the UK’s understanding of long term, whole-life or operational carbon performance of buildings and assets.

As BEIS launches its call for evidence into low emissions industrial products, we need a more informed debate about whole-life carbon analysis. Net zero requires detail and carbon transparency on all materials, but also an appreciation that buildings and assets must and will perform for generations. It calls for a long-term view in a world in which short termism all too often prevails.

"An exclusive focus on upfront embodied carbon fails to consider carbon over an asset’s lifecycle"

Whole-life analysis measures carbon impacts over the lifetime of a building or asset. This includes extraction of raw materials, product miles and construction, through to maintenance, repair, reuse, and recyclability following demolition. 

An exclusive focus on upfront embodied carbon fails to consider carbon over an asset’s lifecycle. It does not give enough consideration to the relationship between embodied carbon and measures to reduce energy use. Nor does it consider the impacts of improved social outcomes such as fire protection, occupant safety and comfort, resilience to water escape and flooding.

The recent RISCAuthority report commissioned by the insurance industry to look at timber construction and risk highlighted the importance of low carbon, safety and resilience when designing buildings. This report quite rightly did not seek to divide the world into binary groups of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ materials.  All too often discussions about embodied carbon for materials like concrete start here.

Local government in London is asking developers to consider whole life. The Greater London Authority’s London Plan 2021 requires designers and constructors to calculate the whole life carbon in materials emitted during the construction, maintenance and demolition of their projects. London’s leadership on this issue is major step forward and should really provide a template for national Government policy moving forward. 

Net zero and the ESG agenda in the investor community is also changing the way clients and developers consider long term performance with construction of new buildings and equally the green refurbishment existing assets. Time was when the operational performance of buildings did not concern investors or occupiers but that has undoubtedly changed. The reality is that no investor or asset owner wants to have a stranded asset that does not deliver low carbon performance in a society rapidly transitioning to net zero.

Carbon lifecycle assessment is vital in a world where built assets must last for 30-60 years and should be ready to be reused and reconfigured across the lifecycle for even longer. Delivering buildings which can offer low carbon performance, adaptability, fire protection and resilience will not always be achieved with the very lowest embodied carbon, but considerable carbon savings are still possible..  Critically, carbon should not be considered in isolation to climate adaptation, occupant safety, structural performance and circular economy principles such as re-use and recoverability.

Against these requirements, the political debate must be informed by a greater desire to understand whole-life carbon. Detail, transparency on all materials and the operational performance of buildings must be part of the conversation.   

Written by Elaine Toogood, is head of architecture at The Concrete Centre