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Now embodied carbon is back on the agenda, let’s seize the chance to make real progress on reducing emissions

The Boathouse via The Wood Awards. Photograph: ©JimStephenson

Wood for Good

3 min read Partner content

With the Environmental Audit Committee publishing its blueprint for reducing carbon emissions in construction, there is the momentum to legislative towards a more sustainable built environment.

This week has proved another busy for Parliament, with the party gate scandal and Russia-Ukraine conflict continuing to dominate national political discourse.

It is, however, important to ensure that other important news does not get lost amid this political chaos, with this week seeing major developments regarding sustainability in our built environment.

Yesterday, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) published its long-awaited ‘Building to net-zero: costing carbon in construction’ report which outlines how the UK government can decarbonise our built environment.

Whereas areas such as transport and energy have seen major green developments in recent years, the built environment continues to lag, now accounting for approximately 25% of our total greenhouse gas emissions.

The report outlines several ways in which the Government can tackle this problem, including using timber to reduce embodied carbon emissions in construction.

To date, policies from the Government have focused entirely on operational emissions, those relating to day-to-day use of a building such as heating, while embodied carbon emissions, relating to the construction of a building - remain ignored. These emissions are significant and total more than the aviation and shipping industries combined.

Evidence from a range of experts in the report, including the UK Climate Change Committee, leading academics, researchers, architects and engineers, showed that using timber in place of concrete, masonry, and steel is one of the most successful strategies to reduce embodied carbon in the built environment.

This is due to timber’s sustainable qualities, acting as a natural carbon store as well as requiring a far less carbon-intensive construction process in comparison to traditional building methods.

So how do we use more timber?

The report calls on the Government to implement mandatory Whole Life Carbon (WLC) Assessments. This entails tracking embodied carbon emissions from the construction and the use of a building over its entire life. This provides a true picture of a building's carbon impact and incentivises the use of low-carbon materials such as timber.

These assessments together with the introduction of progressively more stringent carbon targets on building will create a major shift in how we build. It will also help the UK to catch up with its EU counterparts who have accelerated ahead in recent years.

In France for example, the government has mandated that all public buildings must be constructed using 50% low-carbon materials, while in the Netherlands there are legal limits on embodied carbon in buildings over 100m2. Finland too is legislating on this issue, with a Whole Life Carbon Assessment required on all buildings from 2025.

The Government can also act on this recommendation quickly, with ‘Part Z’ the Carbon Emissions Bill set to be re-introduced following its withdrawal by Duncan Baker MP in March.

The bill is now sponsored by Jerome Mayhew MP – an EAC member - and calls for the whole-life carbon emissions of buildings to be reported and for limits to be set on embodied carbon emissions in the construction of buildings.

It is worth noting that this bill is a ten-minute rule motion – a private members/backbench bill which rarely become law.

However, sixty private members’ bills have become law since 1945, and given the recommendations of this committee and the need for urgent climate action, why not make this number sixty-one?

In backing this bill, the government can make a huge stride towards our net-zero goals by limiting our embodied carbon emissions and incentivising the use of low-carbon timber in both commercial and residential buildings.

Whole Life Carbon Assessments are a proven and widely supported way to transition to a low-carbon built environment – the time to act is now.

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