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Green Building Leaders Press Industry to Halve CO2 of Building Materials

Advocates are challenging the global building sector to cut the carbon footprint of concrete and other products by 30% by 2014, and 50% by 2030

By Robert Gluck

Mar 31, 2011
A cement mixer

Edward Mazria, the American architect behind the influential 2030 Challenge to zero out fossil fuel use from all buildings, is turning to a new target: carbon-heavy construction materials.

The "2030 Challenge for Products," unveiled in February, challenges the global building community to cut the carbon footprint of concrete and other building materials by 50 percent by 2030, with an interim target of 30 percent beyond the average by 2014.

Executives eager to get their newly "green" products to market faster are embracing the effort.

"Moving these products into the marketplace has been difficult," said Jeff Davis, an executive at  Houston, Texas-based U.S. Concrete, a maker of ready-mix concrete that has developed a product with a 30 percent lower carbon dioxide footprint.

"Hopefully, the 2030 Challenge for Products will accelerate this process, challenging designers and specifiers to accept the advancements in concrete technology."

Mazria, executive director of the nonprofit Architecture 2030, says the initiative builds on his 2030 Challenge, launched five years ago. That push was adopted by some of the sector's biggest forces, including the American Institute of Architects and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, and was endorsed by President Obama, the nation's mayors and many governors. 

So far, supporters of the new challenge include some obvious allies: The Green Standard, Southface Green Building Services, BuildingGreen and the Carbon Leadership Forum (CLF), a collaboration of construction and design firms.

Kathrina Simonen, an architect and structural engineer involved with CLF, told SolveClimate News that the effort will "leverage a significant established network to motivate action."

The premise behind both 2030 challenges is that the world has just 20 years to cut energy consumption from the building sector to levels needed to avoid dangerous climate change.

Each year in the United States, buildings consume nearly 50 percent of total energy and contribute 47 percent of national greenhouse gas emissions. Most power use is in operations — lighting, heating and cooling. About 5 to 8 percent of yearly energy consumption comes from building materials and construction.

However, when the full lifecycle of the sector is considered — from manufacturing and transporting the products to constructing and operating the building for two decades — the percentages shift, says Mazria.

"About 60 percent of the total energy a new building would use over 20 years is for building operations," he told SolveClimate News, "and about 40 percent is the materials in the building." 

Initiative to Impact All Product Manufacturing?

Experts say that cutting carbon emissions from building materials requires green improvements in three sectors: Factories must adopt more-efficient manufacturing processes and cleaner energy generation; transport must be cleaner-burning; and buildings must be built for low-carbon building products.

The hope is that these changes could trickle across the entire manufacturing industry, said Francesca Desmarais, director of the 2030 Challenge for Products.

"That's why we decided to look at taking on and addressing the building products, because it will also influence the entire product manufacturing sector," she told SolveClimate News.

"Going forward [with the products challenge] will have a positive rippling effect," Mazria said. "Once you start looking at this entire process, you begin to see things that you never even imagined."

They also sought to speed and streamline efforts underway.

"Many people were doing good work in the product sector, but they were moving at a snail's pace because of the complexity and variety," Desmarais said. "We're doing this to coalesce the movement and to get moving quicker."

'We'll Know in 12 to 24 Months' How Well It's Working

Architecture 2030 set down benchmarks and developed protocols and standards to meet its carbon-reduction targets of 30 percent below each product's average through 2014, increasing to 35 percent in 2015, 40 percent in 2020, 45 percent in 2025, and 50 percent by 2030.

But how exactly will the complex carbon footprints of building products be calculated? Mazria said it took a year to decide.

Initially, there were two options — "cradle-to-gate" impacts, from mining of the raw materials through transportation and manufacturing, and "cradle-to-grave," which counts post-manufacturing greenhouse gas emissions, through installation of the product, covering all the energy used before it heads to the trash bin.

According to Mazria: "We had all sorts of discussions with industry experts on what this should be and decided on cradle-to-grave as the benchmark."

"The industry is supportive now that they know what they're counting," Desmarais said. "Ours is a holistic approach, and as the entire sector coalesces around the benchmarks, we'll know in 12 to 24 months how well everyone is moving in the same direction."

Industry Not Keeping Up with Advancements

Some experts say that just making environmental impacts of building materials known is a fundamental first step in stoking demand for climate-friendly products.

Without that demand, "manufacturers will not even invest in the research required, nor publish the results" on the CO2 associated with their products, said Simonen of the Carbon Leadership Forum.

Simonen says her research is focused on the carbon accounting of concrete. She develops models that help ready-mix plants to compute and report the footprints of their different mixes. "Concrete is a unique material," she said. "Its composition is to a great degree specified by structural engineers, and thus the design team can directly impact the manufacturing processes."

Producing cement, the main ingredient of concrete, accounts for as much as 5 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide.

Davis of U.S. Concrete said some of his firm's recent projects have been manufactured using new technology that can cut the product's carbon footprint in half by adding fly ash, slag and natural pozzolans into the mix, among other changes.

So far, though, industry hasn't been able "to modify or change specifications at the same rate of technology advancements," Davis said, though he's hopeful Mazria's challenge will change this.

Project to Generate 'Transparent Carbon Info'

Also on board is the Healthy Building Network (HBN), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that tracks health impacts of the country's buildings.

The network's Pharos Project provides environmental information on a range of materials such as paint, carpet, flooring, acoustic ceilings and insulation.

Tom Lent, policy director for the organization, told SolveClimate News that the 2030 Challenge will expand HBN's work as evaluator of building products.

"HBN has long been concerned about the significance of climate change emissions in the building product manufacturing sector," Lent said. "But a lack of useful data and consistent guidelines for carbon calculations has hampered efforts to assess [products'] carbon footprints.

"This initiative has the potential to generate the type of credible and transparent carbon information needed to fill an important gap in our understanding."

However, he warned: "[It] will be critical to make sure that carbon improvements do not come through the use of toxic materials at the cost of human health."

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