Fifty billion tonnes of carbon emissions are released around the world every year. Forty percent come from the built environment alone, and 22 percent from embodied carbon emissions in infrastructure and construction. In Australia, embodied carbon emissions are predicted to grow 65 percent by 2050.

At this scale, reducing embodied carbon is hugely important to address global warming. And, the infrastructure and construction industries, as well as many of their suppliers, will need to play a significant role.

What is embodied carbon?

Embodied carbon is the carbon released from buildings and infrastructure throughout the construction process and beyond – from material extraction, to transport, manufacturing, installation, and disposal.

With embodied carbon representing 22 percent of carbon emissions emitted by a piece of infrastructure, the remaining 78 percent relates to operational carbon.

Yet, unlike operational emissions which can be reduced using energy efficient practices or renewable energy, embodied carbon can’t be directly addressed after construction – the impact has already been made.

This diagram illustrates the lifecycle of an asset, highlighting the corresponding stages, which includes the upstream and downstream emissions of an asset. The process process from the manufacturing of components to the end of the asset’s life. The World Green Building Council’s definition of embodied carbon encompasses the four stages depicted in the diagram, excluding operational energy use.

Beyond the lifecycle

Carbon emissions or emissions savings incurred due to reuse or recycling of materials or emissions avoided due to exporting renewable energy or using waste as a fuel source for another process.

Embodied carbon

Carbon emissions associated with materials and construction processes throughout the whole lifecycle of a building or infrastructure.

Upfront carbon

The emissions caused in the materials production and construction phases of the lifecycle before the building or infrastructure begins to be used.

  • Raw material supply
  • Transport
  • Manufacturing
  • Construction

Operational carbon

  • Energy use

Use stage embodied carbon

Carbon emissions associated with materials and processes required for the upkeep of the built asset throughout its lifecycle.

  • Maintenance use
  • Refurbishment repair
  • Replacement

End of life carbon

The carbon emitted during demolition or deconstruction and processing of materials for reuse, recycling or final disposal.

  • Disposal
  • Processing
  • Transport
  • Deconstruction

The importance of reducing embodied carbon

Between 2020-2050, as buildings become more energy efficient, embodied carbon will be responsible for almost 50 percent of emissions from new construction.

But low-cost measures, such as conscientious material selection and cutting back on material usage, could reduce its impact by between 24–46 percent. This could equate to the reduction of up to five billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent embodied carbon emissions per year.

The impacts of increased building and infrastructure

The global population is estimated to reach around 9.7 billion by 2050, with Australia’s population expected to increase to just over 40 million in the same timeframe.

Unsurprisingly, this population surge will put enormous pressure on existing infrastructure, housing and workplaces — and growing communities will require the development of new buildings and infrastructure to support them. 

By 2050 we can expect to see:

  • a surge in infrastructure development
  • an increase in housing development
  • more commercial buildings
  • growth in the global construction industry.

In turn, this construction will increase carbon emissions and make global warming containment unachievable unless we act now.

Global action on embodied carbon

Around the world, action is being taken to help reduce and control embodied carbon, including:

  • Embodied emissions limits across Finland, Sweden, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada and parts of the US.
  • Green rated buildings and green building councils in dozens of countries.
  • Measurement methodologies in New Zealand and under development in Australia.
  • PAS 2080 – the UK’s global standard for managing infrastructure carbon.
  • Science Based Targets initiative – a voluntary global program driving climate action through private companies.

Australia is also taking steps to reduce embodied carbon through:

  • Federal and state-based climate change policy.
  • Industry standards such as the NABERS embodied emissions framework and green star rating system.

Four ways to reduce embodied emissions

The World Green Building Council identifies the following activities to help reduce carbon:

  1. Build nothing
    Use existing structures rather than building new ones
  2. Build less
    Use existing assets and optimise for needs
  3. Build clever
    Use the design process to improve material usage and low carbon materials
  4. Build efficiently
    Make sure low carbon technologies are employed in the construction process to eliminate waste.

Read our report for examples of how each of these practices have been considered in Australia and how the construction ecosystem can transform to reduce carbon.

Download Tackling embodied carbon in Australia’s construction and infrastructure sector report

Download the full report

Tackling embodied carbon in Australia’s construction and infrastructure sector: meeting the challenge of a net zero economy.

Download report (PDF 6.8MB)

Reducing embodied carbon: How KPMG can help

KPMG Australia draws on our global network, deep experience and latest technology to help you fast forward to a fair net zero.

Calculating embodied carbon

KPMG Origins Asset Impact measures, benchmarks and reports on embodied carbon and operational emissions in the built environment. It extends KPMG’s existing suite of risk capabilities to support the ESG agenda for clients and the wider industry.

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