Did you know that building materials and building operations contribute more than a third of global CO2 e2 emissions? The highest producers in the building materials sector are concrete and steel materials.
CO2e2 emissions, or “carbon” emissions, are a measure of Global Warming Potential (GWP). The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that the GWP is “a measure of how much energy the emissions of one ton of a gas will absorb over a given period of time, relative to the emissions of one ton of carbon dioxide.” The higher the GWP number, the more a gas impacts the planet’s temperature.
The GWP includes production of the materials from the extraction of raw materials, to manufacturing and fabrication through end of life, including transportation impacts.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Structural Engineering Institute (SEI) Sustainability Committee has taken up the SE 2050 Challenge issued by the Carbon Leadership Forum and is developing a commitment structural engineers can adopt to have a positive impact on global warming. After all, structural materials are in their control!
This Fall, November 2020, the SEI Sustainability Committee’s SE 2050 Subcommittee is launching the SE 2050 Commitment Program, as described on their website. The Subcommittee is dedicated to supporting structural engineers and building professionals to reduce embodied carbon. The website invites engineers and engineering firms to “accelerate the embodied carbon reduction in structural systems and materials through three main activities.” The goals of the SE 2050 Subcommittee are to first, call for engineering firms to support education and GWP tracking. The next task will be to implement sustainable goals that include specifying low carbon impact materials and providing the GWP on projects. Finally, the Subcommittee aims to provide a system of tracking and sharing data on structural systems.
The goals of the SE 2050 Commitment Program are to provide a platform for collaboration, encourage original research, and publish practical guidance with immediate benefits. The guidance will include how to build low-carbon structures that will in turn become industrial “best practices.” In short, the subcommittee will provide engineers with a working knowledge on embodied carbon and pathways to achieving net-zero embodied carbon.
This is a huge task to undertake. The subcommittee is thoughtfully breaking the task of achieving net-zero embodied carbon into individual tasks along the lines of education, advocacy and accountability. Even so, reducing the impact of the embodied carbon on global warming needs the support of the industry. Engineering firms are encouraged to take a leadership position by becoming Signatories on the SE 2050 Commitment and creating an Embodied Carbon Action Plan (ECAP).
The ECAP is an opportunity for an engineering firm or a facility to review their current sustainability plans and sustainable business practices. Each firm is encouraged to hold a wide discussion on what your firms’ values are and where they align with sustainability. This is a time to evaluate what best practices the firm is currently engaged in and where it wants to be and how those best practices reveal themselves on projects.
While ECAP requirements are still under development, the current thinking follows. Each firms’ ECAP should be composed of the following four sections at a minimum: Education, Reporting, Reduction, and Advocacy. While there are no mandatory requirements, it is strongly recommended the following items be addressed within each section. Sample ECAPs will be on the website to help get started.
Below is a brief description of these four areas:
Education - A plan should note that the SE 2050 Commitment is shared within the company. Webinars and “lunch & learns” are great ways to educate employees on carbon reduction.
Reporting - Sharing project data from structural materials will help benchmark current embodied carbon levels. The SE 2050 is collecting data to track current embodied carbon impacts and trends of various structural systems for different regions through the country.
Reduction - Recognizing that different firms and organizations vary widely with business models and workflows, the strategies for embodied carbon reduction shall be customized to the firm.
Advocacy - Encouraging industry and policy change regarding low-carbon materials and materials with carbon sequestration.
The SE 2050 goal is to provide a sustainability program with an accountable strategy of active engagement on projects and sharing of information in order to achieve net-zero carbon structures by 2050.
Getting to net-zero will require improvements in both our design and construction methods. SE 2050 is here to support this effort. The November launch of the SE 2050 Commitment and updated www.SE 2050.org is coming up, but you can get a head start by “Joining the Movement” today at www.SE 2050.org/join-the-movement/.
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Supported by the staff of The Engineering Center Education Trust