Bruce Jacobs, PhD, PE, BSCES Legislative Fellow
Building materials, principally steel and concrete, are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions due to the high-energy, carbon-intensive nature of their production process. These production-related emissions, referred to as embodied carbon, are the subject of several pending bills at the Massachusetts legislature that may impact how you use building materials in future projects.
The Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change recently convened the Reducing Embodied Carbon Emissions event that focused on the policy and regulatory reforms necessary to reduce embodied carbon emissions. Senator Creem, the Senate Global Warming Committee chair, emphasized the role of state government to create a market for materials with low embodied carbon. Massachusetts, she noted, “is a major buyer of concrete and steel” and that “by using our purchasing power for low carbon materials, the Commonwealth can create demand for climate-friendly products.”
The following three “buy clean” bills are currently being considered that would impact the selection of materials on state projects. These roughly follow the pattern of legislation in other states, such as California, New York, and New Jersey. “Buy clean” bills typically require purchase of materials that do not exceed a specified global warming potential (GWP) value as reported in manufacturer- and product-specific environmental product declarations (EPDs). Protocols are in place for standard procedures to be used in the evaluation of GWP values. EPDs are not presently universally available by all vendors for all materials, but you should expect to see them more frequently in coming years.
The act tasks the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance with establishing maximum acceptable global warming potential (GWP) values for each of the commonly used materials. These are by-design to be set to the 75th percentile of published regional or national GWP values.
The act also tasks the Department of Transportation (MassDOT) with establishing a program for greenhouse gas reduction. This program would assess greenhouse gas emissions from materials used by the department, conduct life cycle assessments of a select set of construction and maintenance activities, and devise strategies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions by either improving pavement and bridge conditions or establishing maximum acceptable global warming potential for individual materials. The submission of environmental product declarations (EPDs) would also be mandated as part of the process of certifying compliance with established emission standards.
The act tasks the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance and the Department of Energy Resources with establishing guidelines that would require the procurement of low-embodied carbon concrete for state construction projects. It further tasks the Division with examining various mechanisms for increasing the use of low-embodied carbon materials in state projects, including financial incentives (such as bid credits), implementation of maximum GWP thresholds, utilization of EPDs, and use of performance-based design specifications to allow for more flexibility in the selection of materials.
This act has potentially broader impacts in that it would apply to both state and non-state projects. Under the act, the Massachusetts state climate chief shall establish an Embodied Carbon Advisory Board. There are opportunities for input from the engineering community as two Board seats each are reserved for professional engineers, civil engineering faculty, and representatives of the construction industry. The Board will advise on courses and certifications to advance knowledge within industry of measures to reduce embodied carbon, establish industrial best practices for life cycle analysis of buildings and reducing emissions from embodied carbon. The Board will also report back to the house and senate on “best policy mechanisms to measure, monitor, and reduce embodied carbon across all building types.” The Department of Energy Resources shall incorporate provisions relative to the measurement and reduction of embodied carbon into the stretch energy code of the Massachusetts building energy code. The stretch energy code is an optional amendment to the state building code that may be adopted by local communities at their discretion.
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