Embodied Carbon and Climate Justice: Confluence or Conflict?

HBN | December 2019 | Newsletter

Two important initiatives are gaining momentum in the green building movement. One seeks to reduce the embodied carbon of building products. The other seeks to increase inclusion, diversity and equity in the green building industry, addressing, in the words of the LEED “Social Equity” Pilot Credit, “social equity from the perspective of everyone who is touched or impacted by a building.”1 It is critical that these efforts align their goals lest, once again, the latest definition and marketing of “green” building products overlooks and overrides the interests of the front line communities most impacted by both climate change and toxic pollution.

The Carbon Leadership Forum describes embodied carbon as “the sum impact of all the greenhouse gas emissions attributed to the materials throughout their life cycle (extracting from the ground, manufacturing, construction, maintenance and end of life/disposal).2 In a widely praised book, The New Carbon Architecture3, Bruce King explains clearly why reducing carbon inputs to building materials immediately—present day carbon releases—is more effective at meeting urgent carbon reduction goals than the gains of even a Net Zero building, which are realized over decades. This approach is embraced by the Materials Carbon Action Network, a growing association of manufacturers and others, which states as its aim “prioritization of embodied carbon in building materials.”(emphasis added).4

Climate action priorities are framed differently by groups at the forefront of movements for climate justice and equity in the green building movement. Mary Robinson, past President of Ireland, UN High Commissioner on Human Rights and UN Special Envoy on Climate Change, says climate justice “insists on a shift from a discourse on greenhouse gases and melting ice caps into a civil rights movement with the people and communities most vulnerable to climate impacts at its heart.” 5 The Equitable and Just National Climate Platform6, adopted this past June by a broad cross section of environmental justice groups and national organizations including Center for American Progress, League of Conservation Voters, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Sierra Club, calls for “prioritizing climate solutions and other policies that also reduce pollution in these legacy communities at the scale needed to significantly improve their public health and quality of life.”  The NAACP’s Centering Equity In The Sustainable Building Sector (CESBS)7 initiative advocates “action on shutting down coal plants and other toxic facilities at the local level, as well as building of new toxic facilities, with advocacy to strengthen development, monitoring, and enforcement of regulations at federal, state, and local levels. Also includes a focus on corporate responsibility and accountability.”8 

The embodied carbon and climate justice initiatives are aligned when carbon reductions in building products are achieved through industrial process changes that reduce the use of fossil fuels and other petrochemicals. But rarely, if ever, can building products be manufactured with no carbon footprint, i.e. without fossil fuel inputs. These initiatives may not be aligned when manufacturers promote “carbon neutral” or “carbon negative” products that rely on carbon trading or offsets, the practice of supporting carbon reduction elsewhere (by planting trees or investing in renewable energy) to offset fossil fuel and petrochemical inputs at the factory.  According to the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform: “ . . . these policies do not guarantee emissions reduction in EJ communities and can even allow increased emissions in communities that are already disproportionately burdened with pollution and substandard infrastructure.”   They may also allow increased toxic pollution, if a manufacturer chooses to invest in carbon offsets, for example, rather than invest in process changes that reduce toxic chemical use or emissions.  As a result, disproportionate impacts, often correlated with race, can be perpetuated.

Vinyl provides one example of such inequity. Vinyl’s carbon footprint includes carbon tetrachloride, a chemical released during chlorine production that is simultaneously highly toxic, ozone depleting, and a global warming gas 1,400 times more potent than CO2. Offsetting these releases with tree planting or renewable energy purchases does nothing for the toxic fallout, from carbon tetrachloride, fossil fuels and other petrochemicals, on the communities adjacent to those manufacturing facilities. 

Experts agree that the most embodied carbon reductions by far are to be had in addressing steel and concrete in buildings. Beyond that, experts disagree about the strength of the data available to track carbon reductions and compare products in a meaningful, objective way, and warn of diminishing returns relative to the investment needed to track carbon in every product.  These may prove to be worth pursuing, but not at the expense of meaningful improvements to conditions in fenceline communities.

HBN believes that these approaches can be reconciled and aligned through dialogue that includes the communities most impacted the petrochemical infrastructure that is driving climate change. Our chemical hazard database, Pharos, and our collaboration with ChemForward provide manufacturers with the ability to reduce their product’s carbon and toxic footprints. Our in-depth analysis of the vinyl lifecycle, and numerous recommendations for reducing hazards in recycled content [available here] provide further bases for stakeholders to prioritize equitable solutions that accelerate efforts to address both climate change and climate justice. 

We can in good faith pursue reductions in embedded carbon and toxic chemical use, climate and environmental justice and to define climate positive building products accordingly. Prioritizing selection of products simply upon claims of carbon neutrality, however, is not yet warranted.

 

References 

[1] U.S. Green Building Council, “Resources | U.S. Green Building Council,” LEED, accessed November 14, 2019, http://www.usgbc.org/resources/social-equity-built-environmen.
[2] Carbon Leadership Forum, “Why Embodied Carbon?,” Carbon Leadership Forum (blog), accessed November 14, 2019, http://carbonleadershipforum.org/about/why-embodied-carbon/.
[3] Ecological Building Network, “The New Carbon Architecture,” EBNet, accessed November 14, 2019, https://www.ecobuildnetwork.org/projects/new-carbon-architecture.
[4] Interface, “MaterialsCAN,” accessed November 14, 2019, https://www.interface.com/US/en-US/campaign/transparency/materialsCAN-en_US.
[5] Martin, “Climate Justice,” United Nations Sustainable Development (blog), May 31, 2019, https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/climate-justice/.
[6] Equitable and Just, “A Just Climate,” accessed November 14, 2019, https://ajustclimate.org.
[7] NAACP, “NAACP | Centering Equity in the Sustainable Building Sector,” NAACP, accessed November 14, 2019, https://www.naacp.org/climate-justice-resources/centering-equity-sustainable-building-sector/.
[8] NAACP, “NAACP | NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program,” NAACP, accessed November 14, 2019, https://www.naacp.org/environmental-climate-justice-about/.