Sustainability: whole life carbon

A bigger picture

21 November 2017

Sean Agass and Ellie Scott explain the background and significance of the new RICS professional statement – Whole life carbon assessment for the built environment

The result of a 16-month Innovate UK project, produced with extensive involvement from key industry figures, the RICS professional statement (PS) mandates a whole life approach to reducing carbon emissions. It does so with the overarching aim of limiting resource depletion and cutting pollution. It was in May 2014 that RICS published the guidance note Methodology to calculate embodied carbon, 1st edition – its first guidance note in this area. This PS now goes considerably further, also encompassing the emissions involved in transporting, installing, replacing and disposing of the elements that make up building components.

As author Athina Papakosta, of Sturgis Carbon Profiling explains:

‘Whole life carbon encompasses emissions not just directly from the operation of buildings over their life cycle. However, the industry has so far been lacking a practical way of quantifying and communicating whole life carbon emissions arising from built assets confidently and consistently. This is what the PS is tackling ...’

Rising tide

Climate change is one of the greatest environmental challenges of our time. Global warming due to human-generated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, i.e. carbon emissions, may have severe adverse environmental, social and financial effects if temperatures continue to rise. Further, according to statistics from Oxford Future Cities, 47% of all UK CO2 emissions are specifically linked to construction and the operation of the built environment. Sizeable carbon emissions arising from the built environment are attributable not only to the use of built assets – known as operational emissions – but also to their construction – embodied emissions. This has led to a growing interest in whole life carbon across all sectors of the built environment. In part, as a response to increasingly stringent emissions reduction requirements.

Earlier in November, the 2017 UN Climate Change Conference met in Bonn (COP23) and heard from UN Director General António Guterres. He warned, ‘The latest UN Environment Programme Emissions Gap Report shows that current pledges will only deliver a third of what is needed … the window of opportunity to meet the 2 degree target may close in 20 years or less.’ This was only given more weight because, as widely reported going into the conference, global atmospheric levels of CO2 have just broken all previous records. Have we reached a tipping point beyond which extracting CO2 from the atmosphere becomes the only way to reverse climbing temperatures? What effect will this have on the emissions reduction requirements we have to abide by? And what about the political will for green policies if we face future political and economic uncertainties? (See isurv’s Key concepts in sustainability.) Whatever else, RICS’ publication of this professional statement is now not only timely but urgent.

Scope and objectives

Whole life carbon assessment for the built environment is effective from 1 May 2018 (6 months after publication). Its specific objectives, as set out in section 1.3 of the document, are to:

  • provide a consistent and transparent whole life carbon assessment implementation plan and reporting structure for built projects in line with EN 15978;
  • enable coherence in the outputs of whole life carbon assessments to improve the comparability and usability of results;
  • make whole life carbon assessments more ‘mainstream’ by enhancing their accessibility and therefore encourage greater engagement and uptake by the built environment sector;
  • increase the reliability of whole life carbon assessment by providing a solid source of reference for the industry;
  • promote long-term thinking past project practical completion, concerning the maintenance, durability and adaptability of building components and the project as a whole; and
  • promote circular economic principles by encouraging future repurposing of building components, as well as of the project as a whole, through quantifying their recovery, reuse and/or recycling potential.

The professional statement sets out both mandatory requirements and supporting guidance for conducting whole life carbon assessments for construction and infrastructure projects in line with EN 15978. It also focuses on the interpretation and practical implementation of that methodology. It is suitable for the assessment of both new and existing assets as well as refurbishment, retrofit and fit-out projects.

Future impact

Project lead Simon Sturgis, also of Sturgis Carbon Profiling, argues that the publication carries with it the possibility of making a real difference.

‘This new professional statement has the potential to change the way buildings are designed. It will mean a much more holistic consideration of resource and energy flows over the entire life of a building. This will give a much more accurate understanding of a building’s overall carbon cost.’

He adds that the PS will also ‘ … help quantify the carbon impacts of better material selection and the life cycle impacts of design choices.’

Returning to its overarching objective – of facilitating a lower carbon and more resource-efficient model for the built environment – it is also hoped that the PS will have 3 principal effects in terms of encouraging future long-term action in this area.

  • Benchmarking: conducting whole life carbon assessments in accordance with this professional statement will put all studies on the same basis and provide consistency among results enabling meaningful comparisons.
  • Carbon target setting: once credible benchmarking is in place, relevant targets, ‘static’ and/or ‘dynamic’ can be set for the whole life carbon performance of built assets. Clear and quantifiable whole life carbon targets will aid the pursuit of emissions reductions. The incorporation of such targets into sustainable development policies for the built environment, planning requirements, building rating schemes like BREEAM, etc., contractual obligations and legislation/building regulations, constitutes a future aspiration to steer the industry.
  • Longer-term thinking: early consideration of likely future climate change impacts. The advancements in the quality, scrutiny and availability of carbon data, as well as integration with BIM, should further improve the accessibility, accuracy and ease of conducting whole life carbon assessments.

James Fiske and Alan Cripps were involved on behalf of RICS to ensure technical consistency with other outputs. On the significance of this project James adds:

‘Looking at the whole life measurement of carbon is the only way to ensure that we are making the right choices to reduce the environmental impact of our activities in the built environment. This methodology is key in providing consistency in the measurement of carbon so we can compare, benchmark performance and drive improvements.’

The PS has already received positive feedback from industry. A consultation launch event in May was attended by key industry figures and hosted by Land Securities, a member of the working group consortium. Additionally, projects such as HS2 are looking to adopt the PS throughout their supply chain.

Sean Agass is an Editorial Team Leader and Ellie Scott is a Senior Project Manager at RICS

Further information