Why upfront carbon is our next frontier

31 Aug 2022

A message from the CEO Davina Rooney

On Friday, Australia’s building ministers agreed to the first upgrade to minimum energy performance of new homes since 2010. This is a huge step forward for Australia.

New South Wales is taking an even larger leap. Not only must new homes and renovations worth more than $50,000 meet a 7-star energy efficiency rating from October. The NSW Government will also require people to calculate and report the carbon contained in the construction materials they choose.

Until now, the topic of embodied carbon emissions has been a conversation mostly held on the margins. For the best part of two decades, the industry has largely looked the other way – not through indifference, but because sustainability specialists already had a lot on their plates.

As we drive down operational emissions at speed and scale, it’s clear we can no longer avert our gaze from the second largest source of emissions. Upfront carbon is the building industry’s next frontier.

The WorldGBC’s 2019 report, Bringing embodied carbon upfront, laid out the challenge ahead: 29% of global energy-related carbon emissions come from building operations and another 11% are created during the manufacture of materials and during construction. Half of all the built environment’s carbon emissions in 2050 will be generated upfront – before anyone steps a foot in the front door, switches on a light or rides in a lift. In Australia’s case, thinkstep-anz modelling commissioned by GBCA last year found upfront carbon will be responsible for 85% of built environment emissions by 2050.

MECLA, the Materials and Embodied Carbon Leaders Alliance which only celebrated its first birthday in May, has done a brilliant job of shining a spotlight on the issue of upfront carbon. As MECLA makes clear, the steel, cement and aluminium each produce between 7% and 9% of global emissions. These are the building blocks of our industry.

Our Climate Positive Roadmap aligns with the WorldGBC’s vision for all new buildings to demonstrate a 40% reduction of upfront carbon by 2030. This has been a requirement of 6 Star Green Star buildings since 2020 and will be a pre-requisite for all Green Star buildings by 2030.

The circular economy philosophy established by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is based on three principles: to eliminate waste and pollution, to circulate products and materials at their highest value and to regenerate nature. Addressing upfront carbon does all three.

Our job is to help the industry turn ambition into action and strategy into sustainable outcomes. We currently have a huge program of works underway to help our industry extend the frontiers of its knowledge.

We are currently working on two guides, one an overview to help the construction value chain understand the issue of upfront carbon and the other a technical deep dive into the challenge of measuring embodied carbon. Both guides will be released in 2023, but for now you can read our "upfront conversation" with Head of Market Transformation, Jorge Chapa, in this issue of Green Building Voice.

Our members are also sending a strong signal to the market that measuring and managing upfront carbon matters. The GPT Group promises to certify its upfront carbon neutrality on every new development, and this month we look at how GPT’s nature-positive approach to upfront carbon is changing the game. 

Lendlease has built a database of low and zero emissions construction machinery and equipment and is working with us to establish a new Green Star Innovation Challenge for fossil fuel free constructions sites. (Read more about this in June’s Green Building Voice).

Adaptive reuse is another smart solution, and this month we showcase 5 Star Green Star-rated Midtown Centre, which stitched together a pair of 1980s office towers in Brisbane. By retaining 50,000 tonnes of concrete and 3,600 tonnes of steel, the project saved 11,000 tonnes of carbon, the equivalent of four years of carbon neutral operations, while shaving 25% off the construction budget.

A strong business case for manufacturers is a must, so we are currently collaborating with members to develop a materials database. This month we also share some fascinating insights from Philippa Stone as BlueScope investigates new manufacturing and recycling processes for steel.

There’s a lot going on, and we are working hard to bring everyone onto the same path so we can walk together, rather than create a traffic jam of separate solutions. Our work with NABERS, which will establish an industry-agreed method of measuring embodied carbon, will be central to our success. NABERS Director Carlos Flores gives us an update of the framework this month, which will complement existing systems like NABERS and Green Star, and which will be released for pilot projects next year.

Steve Ford, GPT’s Head of Sustainability and Energy, compares Australia’s small band of sustainability specialists as the property sector’s “Silicon Valley”. Sustainability drives ideas and innovation along the property value chain, he notes. As we stand on the edge of the sector’s next frontier, upfront carbon, new opportunities and new sources of value await.