Climate activists say ‘embodied carbon’ escaping oversight


State House News Service

Published: 05-17-2023 11:07 PM

BOSTON — As Massachusetts moves toward its 2050 deadline to reach net-zero carbon emissions, climate activists had lawmakers’ attention on Wednesday, proposing a new idea to reduce an unlikely source of carbon in the state.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Michelle Ciccolo and Sen. Jo Comerford (H 764 / S 2090), introduced in the Legislature for the first time this session, seeks to reduce embodied carbon in buildings. Embodied carbon is the greenhouse gas emissions associated with manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance and disposal of building and infrastructure materials, according to the Mass Climate Action Network.

MCAN says embodied carbon accounts for between 11 and 23 percent of annual global emissions, but it is rarely included in conversations around reducing greenhouse gasses.

“Everyone knows that in order for us to build and decarbonize our buildings holistically, we have to incorporate embodied carbon. But at the same time, nothing is being done — very, very little is being done — in our state to actually do that,” said MCAN Interim Director Logan Malik. “If we’re serious about meeting the urgency of the climate crisis and holistically reducing emissions from our buildings, we have to act on this complicated but necessary area.”

The bill would establish a state advisory board to address embodied carbon, require the Department of Energy Resources to put forward recommendations and best practices for measuring and reducing the emissions, require a report outlining effective regulation strategies, and require the measurement and reduction of embodied carbon to be incorporated into the state’s building energy code.

One of the highest drivers of embodied carbon is the energy-intensive process of creating cement.

Limestone is heated to extreme temperatures to create cement, a process that releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This process is also usually powered by fossil fuels, creating additional emissions.

Michael Gryniuk, founder and principal at Boston-based structural engineering firm Cora Structural, said the limestone in the cement-making process can be replaced with byproducts of coal plants and steelmaking to create cement that is just as strong.

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“Those products would normally just be landfilled, so it’s like a double positive,” he said.

Gryniuk said there’s already an immense supply of these products that can replace emission-producing materials in cement production, but that they are finite and will eventually run out. He said new technologies will eventually have to produce these materials or come up with a new strategy when existing supply dries up, he said.

Jacob Savona, director of life cycle assessment consulting for The Green Engineer, Inc. based out of Concord, said that his clients have started to ask about guidelines and recommendations for reducing emissions from embodied carbon in buildings.

“We’re seeing our clients who are major developers, architects, structural engineers, contractors in the Boston area, we’re seeing their interests in reducing their embodied carbon growing rapidly. And I can tell you that they are constantly asking if there are any embodied carbon requirements in Massachusetts. At the moment, I have to tell them no,” Savona said.

Even as the continued operation of a building releases greenhouse gasses long after its construction — through emissions related to heating, gas and air conditioning — reducing embodied carbon upfront would still ultimately lower emissions statewide, said Brian Sandford, designer at nonprofit architecture firm MASS Design Group.

“There are often design choices that may negligibly lower operational emissions, but have a huge embodied carbon consequence,” Sandford said. “And as the new energy code comes into effect, we fear this problem may only get worse. The new energy code is great and will lead to buildings that are much better insulated, which is amazing. But that requires more material and ... may lead to buildings that emit an amount of upfront carbon that will never be offset by their operational reductions.”

California, New Jersey, Colorado and Oregon have all taken action to begin addressing embodied carbon, Malik said.