Insights, The More You Know 12 Jan 2024

Understanding Embodied Carbon, Operational Carbon, and Lifetime Emissions in the Construction Industry


Understanding Embodied Carbon, Operational Carbon, and Lifetime Emissions in the Construction Industry

This article examines embodied, operational, and lifetime carbon emissions in construction, emphasising their roles in sustainable development and environmental impact.
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Jan 12, 2024
The More You Know

In the construction and building industry, distinguishing between embodied carbon, operational carbon, and lifetime emissions is essential. The nuances of these concepts often cause confusion, impacting sustainable planning and development. Let’s clarify these terms, highlight their differences, and provide guidance on when and how each should be measured for effective environmental management in construction.


Embodied Carbon and Its Significance

Embodied carbon encompasses the greenhouse gases emitted during the construction phase of a building, including the extraction, manufacturing, transportation, and installation of materials, and their eventual disposal. Notably, embodied carbon contributes to the building's initial carbon footprint before it becomes operational. This is crucial during the early stages of planning and construction, where material selection and construction methods can impact the project's upfront carbon footprint. Statistics indicate that structural systems can contribute up to 80% of a building's embodied carbon, emphasising the need for sustainable material selection and construction methods.

Operational Carbon and Its Long-term Impact

Operational carbon refers to emissions from the building's use, maintenance, and energy consumption, such as heating, cooling, and lighting. Unlike embodied carbon, operational carbon is a continuous concern throughout the building’s life. It can be influenced by design, energy sources, and efficiency measures. Operational carbon currently accounts for 28% of global greenhouse gas emissions, highlighting its significance over a building's lifespan.

Lifetime Emissions: A Comprehensive View

Lifetime emissions combine both embodied and operational carbon, representing the total environmental impact of a building from construction to end-of-life. A comprehensive view of lifetime emissions is vital for holistic environmental management in building design and operation. It involves long-term planning from the building’s design phase, extending to operational strategies and end-of-life considerations.
Embodied Carbon Emissions vs Operational Carbon Emissions Illustration
Embodied Carbon Emissions vs Operational Carbon Emissions Illustration

Strategic Approach to Carbon Measurement

Integrating the considerations of embodied carbon, operational carbon, and lifetime emissions is paramount for a strategic approach to carbon measurement. The process starts with a focus on embodied carbon during the design and construction phases, where material choices and construction methods can significantly impact the project's immediate carbon footprint. However, an exclusive focus on embodied carbon might not capture the full picture, as operational carbon plays a crucial role in the building's lifespan.
Operational carbon is where the long-term sustainability battle is fought. For buildings with longer lifespans, it represents a larger proportion of the building's lifetime emissions. This emphasis aligns with the drive towards net-zero emissions, where operational efficiency and renewable energy integration become increasingly important.
The concept of lifetime emissions ties these aspects together, providing a comprehensive understanding of a building's overall environmental impact. This holistic view encompasses the initial material and construction choices (embodied carbon) and the long-term operational strategies (operational carbon), including considerations for the building's end-of-life.


While both embodied and operational carbon are essential for reducing a building's overall environmental impact, the emphasis on operational carbon is critical for achieving long-term net-zero goals. As technology advances, the potential for reducing operational carbon through improved energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions expands. This makes operational carbon a key area for sustained environmental impact reduction in the construction industry.

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