Embodied carbon: the next frontier for mitigation, and what to do about it

Embodied carbon is a term that up until now has generally been poorly understood, and its importance has been severely underestimated. This is starting to change and is good news for not just the environment, but for businesses and consumers alike. Before we explain why, let’s first discuss what embodied carbon is.

At home, many of us are already trying to make better choices for the environment, but embodied impacts associated with our decisions aren’t always clear. For example, an electric car might be a clear winner in terms of CO2 emission per kilometre, but how important are the impacts associated with producing the battery that runs the car?

A day-to-day example comes at the coffee shop. Is it better to drink from a compostable cup or a KeepCup? Should your go-to dairy substitute be almond milk or soy? These kinds of questions are becoming more and more commonplace, particularly as public concerns over the “climate emergency” take root.

Property taking the lead

How are companies responding? Well, many corporates have a good story to tell about their emissions related to energy use and have long-since promoted their achievements in that area. But with those emissions rapidly decreasing, the focus is quickly turning to Scope 3, which covers the indirect emissions elsewhere in companies’ value chains. This includes the embodied emissions associated with the goods and services that they sell.

Historically businesses have been wary of addressing embodied impacts as they’ve largely been regarded as outside organisations’ control. But, if we take a look at those businesses that have already embraced the concept of embodied carbon, we find there can be a very positive story to tell for both the environment and the businesses themselves.

One of the best local examples is in Australia’s property sector. Thanks to Green Star, whole building life-cycle assessment (LCA) has become an integral part of sustainability for buildings, and established routes through which embodied and operational impacts can be considered in tandem. As a result, property and construction companies are increasingly collaborating with steel, concrete and other building product manufacturers to ask for low or even zero carbon products. More recently, this trend has been accelerated as a result of a number of leading property companies committing to Scope 3 reductions as part of their Science Based Targets. 

Carbon footprinting and LCA gaining an increasing foothold elsewhere

Outside of the property sector the profile of embodied emissions is also accelerating. In recent years we’ve witnessed an exponential increase in the number of companies looking to identify carbon hotspots in their supply chains using techniques like carbon footprint analysis or life-cycle assessment.

For example, making use of these tools we’ve helped a brewery client identify opportunities to cut their footprint through a focus on packaging materials and explored the potential impacts of food producers switching to lower-carbon sources of feed for their animals. Meanwhile, we’re currently working with a clothing brand to uncover how different textile mixes and manufacturing practices could help them reduce their emissions.

These projects speak to a growing recognition that tackling embodied carbon can actually provide significant business opportunities, whether from meeting increasing customer demand, reducing short-term supply chain costs, or mitigating longer-term climate risks. 

Top tips for tackling embodied carbon in your business

So, if your company wants to tackle its embodied emissions,  what should it be doing?

  • Understand your footprint. This is step number one. A company’s carbon footprint can be complex, and without good data it’s easy to focus on the wrong things. Life Cycle Assessment is an internationally standardised framework for quantifying impacts holistically, and is well suited to calculating Scope 3 emissions (including embodied impacts) associated with organisations, products and services.
  • Disclose and communicate. Once you know what your footprint is, communicate it! This can be via your sustainability report, or via a public product assessment such as an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD). Putting this information into the public domain will help others make informed choices, and provides an incentive for you to take steps to reduce your footprint over time.
  • Set targets and plan reductions. Best practice in emissions target setting is to use the Science Based Target (SBT) framework. Unlike approaches of old, SBTs must include measurement of and reductions to Scope 3 emissions. Making commitments of that nature will ensure that you’re at the forefront of climate action. 
  • Use others’ data to make informed decisions. When you’re considering a new product, or designing a new building, look for inputs that have disclosed their footprint and try to choose those with lower impacts. Platforms such as the Building Product Information Rating database are making it easier to find and compare products, credentials, but if you can’t find the data you need, ask. Nothing will make companies move faster than regular calls and emails from customers!
  • Look for collaboration opportunities. It might seem hard to influence a supplier on your own, but what if you join forces with your peers and collectively call for lower-carbon inputs? Similarly, if you are a supplier, think about who you supply to and whether you can help them meet their goals through the work you do on your footprint. You might just find opportunities that make both your organisations’ efforts quicker and easier.

Why is this a priority?

There’s little doubt that addressing embodied emissions is becoming more mainstream, and with good reason. We live in an age when information is increasingly at people’s fingertips, and it’s only a matter of time before we see shelf edge CO2, or apps that allow shoppers to compare products at the swipe of a finger. Companies that think ahead about carbon in their supply chains and operations are future-proofing their business against these trends, as well as meeting the expectations of investors, staff and regulators. 

An industry leader recently said to us that they saw embodied emissions as being “the big story of 2020”. Perhaps, then, it’s a good time to consider what you want your company’s headline to be!

Talk to us about your company’s Carbon Reduction Strategy

Keen for a better understanding of your carbon footprint, or to develop your carbon reduction strategy. As Australia’s largest, dedicated sustainability consultancy, and leading carbon specialists, we’re always ready to chat. Contact Jonas Bengtsson at jonas@edgeenvironment.com

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