Image by Deborah Cortelazzi

Not enough attention is being paid to embodied carbon as Australia transitions to a more sustainable built environment, industry experts have warned in the wake of a new report quantifying the impact of our “hidden emissions”.

Embodied carbon could be responsible for 85 per cent of Australia’s built environment emissions by 2050, up from just 16 per cent in 2019, according to the report by the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) and thinkstep-anz, titled Embodied Carbon & Embodied Energy in Australia’s Buildings.

Both organisations have stressed that ignoring “hidden” embodied carbon emissions — those generated during the manufacture, construction, maintenance and demolition of buildings — could challenge Australia’s ability to meet international targets.

If Australia reduced the embodied emissions in new commercial and residential buildings by just 10 per cent between now and 2050, this would eliminate at least 63.5 megatonnes of emissions – the equivalent to taking 13.8 million cars from the roads for a year.

GBCA’s chief executive officer, Davina Rooney said while Australia was making great strides tackling operational building emissions, through renewable energy and other measures, embodied carbon was largely “locked in” long before tenants arrived. 

“We are on a journey to decarbonise our buildings, but up until now we haven’t quantified the hidden emissions in Australia’s built environment – our embodied carbon,” Ms Rooney said. 

Chief executive officer of thinkstep-anz, Dr Barbara Nebel said she hoped the report could provide a national baseline for the building and construction industry to track its progress over time.

The report drew on contributions from all major construction material categories as well as from large construction companies. It found some of the delay in cutting embodied carbon emissions was in the time it took to develop greener building materials and engender change along the length of the supply chain. 

“On the supply side, we need manufacturers to innovate – to experiment with design, process substitution, carbon capture and storage and green hydrogen, for example,” Ms Rooney said. 

“On the demand side, we need constructors to ask for low-carbon products, to reuse existing materials and to refurbish, where they can, rather than rebuild.”

She added that currently the GBCA’s Green Star rating system rewarded projects that use materials with low embodied carbon.

“Industry and governments must also step up their game. The report makes this clear: there is a clear need for governments to support suppliers as they decarbonise and for investment in research and development of new materials and practices,” Ms Rooney said. 

“Tackling embodied carbon is an enormous challenge, but by doing so we will not only drive down emissions in our building stock. We will also help to future-proof Australia’s energy-intensive industries and ensure we can maintain our global competitiveness in a low-carbon world.”

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