Embodied carbon: NABERS is measuring what matters

31 Aug 2022

NABERS Director Carlos Flores sums up the embodied carbon challenge in one simple sentence. “If you hired two different consultants to calculate the embodied carbon in your building today, you’d land on two drastically different answers.”

But with funding from the NSW Government, the NABERS team has been hard at work on a new national standard to measure, compare and certify the embodied carbon footprint of buildings.

The term ‘embodied carbon’ covers the emissions generated during a building’s entire lifecycle – from raw materials extraction right through to demolition and disposal. The challenge of measuring and managing emissions across such a broad scope can seem overwhelming for building owners still grappling with operational emissions.

“We have no consistency in how we measure embodied emissions,” Carlos says. “How do we account for the materials going into the building? How much of the building do we capture? Does it stop at construction? Do we consider fitout replacements or the disposal at the end of a building’s life?”

Answering these questions is not easy, so the NABERS team investigated the industry’s appetite for another standard before they dove deep into technical design. Workshops with more than 200 people captured the views of advocacy groups, building owners, architecture firms, product manufacturers, lifecycle analysts and designers.

Everyone was asked the same question: Is it a problem that we can’t compare buildings? The answer was “unequivocal”, Carlos says.

“The fact that we have no standards for comparing buildings is huge barrier that makes it hard to set targets, report to investors or communicate design intent with consultants. Without standard measurement, it is impossible to create the market drivers for large-scale change.”

The engagement process also confirmed that NABERS, working closely with the GBCA, was the right organisation to lead the work, provided any standard would complement existing rating tools. Carlos notes that NABERS and GBCA set a positive precedent during the delivery of Climate Active’s carbon neutral standard for buildings, a nationally-consistent standard which allows applicants to choose either NABERS or Green Star as a verification pathway.

The second phase of the project, the technical design of the standard, is now underway. “How do we measure materials consistently? Do we start by tackling upfront carbon first, or does industry think we should try to measure the entire lifecycle of a building? We are in the middle of answering these questions right now.”

NABERS will release draft technical documents for public consultation later in 2022, so industry can share its views on the “big decisions” for this framework. By June next year a framework will be available for pilot projects, with the final standard slated for release towards the end of 2023.

Most companies in Australia’s property and construction industry are just stepping out on their journeys towards net zero, but now is the time to lay the foundations for decades to come, Carlos says.

“Australia is in the unusual position of being perhaps the single world leader in sustainable commercial buildings and, at least among developed nations, one of the laggards in residential buildings. How do we account for that? The key reason is fragmentation.”

Rather than seeking to dominate, Green Star and NABERS “galvanise” the industry. “We have two national initiatives that are high quality, cover a huge amount of the building stock and have been harnessing the collective efforts of industry towards more sustainable buildings for decades. In the residential space, we’ve spent a little too long arguing about which rating tool should rule them all, and not enough on actually making our homes more energy efficient.”

Addressing embodied carbon “could go either way”.

“We can land on a framework that is a nationally consistent way of measuring embodied carbon, and that fits into many different rating tools. A world where companies across the building supply chain receive a consistent, long-term signal on how embodied carbon emissions will be measured, and what they can do to reduce these.

“Or we could find ourselves with countless different tools and databases. A world where buildings are completely non-comparable, and where the supply chain gets contradictory messages on what to do to reduce emissions.”

The choice is ours.

Are you and your team ready for the embody carbon challenge? Understand the scale and importance of embodied carbon and explore practical examples of how to reduce it through materials selection, building design and project management, at our next embodied carbon masterclass. This course sells out fast, secure your place here.