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Case study on the whole life carbon cycle in buildings

Darby, H. J., Elmualim, A. A. and Kelly, F. (2011) Case study on the whole life carbon cycle in buildings. In: World Renewable Energy Congress, 8-13th May, Linköping University, Sweden, pp. 1781-1788.

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Global temperatures are expected to rise by between 1.1 and 6.4oC this century, depending, to a large extent, on the amount of carbon we emit to the atmosphere from now onwards. This warming is expected to have very negative effects on many peoples and ecosystems and, therefore, minimising our carbon emissions is a priority. Buildings are estimated to be responsible for around 50% of carbon emissions in the UK. Potential reductions involve both operational emissions, produced during use, and embodied emissions, produced during manufacture of materials and components, and during construction, refurbishments and demolition. To date the major effort has focused on reducing the, apparently, larger operational element, which is more readily quantifiable and reduction measures are relatively straightforward to identify and implement. Various studies have compared the magnitude of embodied and operational emissions, but have shown considerable variation in the relative values. This illustrates the difficulties in quantifying embodied, as it requires a detailed knowledge of the processes involved in the different life cycle phases, and requires the use of consistent system boundaries. However, other studies have established the interaction between operational and embodied, which demonstrates the importance of considering both elements together in order to maximise potential reductions. This is borne out in statements from both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and The Low Carbon Construction Innovation and Growth Team of the UK Government. In terms of meeting the 2020 and 2050 timeframes for carbon reductions it appears to be equally, if not more, important to consider early embodied carbon reductions, rather than just future operational reductions. Future decarbonisation of energy supply and more efficient lighting and M&E equipment installed in future refits is likely to significantly reduce operational emissions, lending further weight to this argument. A method of discounting to evaluate the present value of future carbon emissions would allow more realistic comparisons to be made on the relative importance of the embodied and operational elements. This paper describes the results of case studies on carbon emissions over the whole lifecycle of three buildings in the UK, compares four available software packages for determining embodied carbon and suggests a method of carbon discounting to obtain present values for future emissions. These form the initial stages of a research project aimed at producing information on embodied carbon for different types of building, components and forms of construction, in a simplified form, which can be readily used by building designers in optimising building design in terms of minimising overall carbon emissions. Keywords: Embodied carbon; carbon emission; building; operational carbon.

Item Type:Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Divisions:Interdisciplinary centres and themes > Centre for Technologies for Sustainable Built Environments (TSBE)
Science > School of the Built Environment
ID Code:24341

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