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Energy efficiency is no longer enough. This is the next big challenge for green building

For many years, the idea of a green building was one that used less energy. Now, as once-fringe elements such as solar panels and double-paned windows have become commonplace and the climate crisis has become widely acknowledged, energy-efficient buildings with low or no carbon emissions are becoming the rule, not the exception.

And rightly so. Buildings are responsible for 74% of electricity consumption and a third of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States alone. But as buildings get more efficient, it’s no longer enough to worry about how much energy a building uses. Today, and in the years ahead, the building industry will need to think about not just a building’s operational emissions but all the energy that goes into creating it—from the harvesting and manufacturing of building materials to the energy used in construction to the energy required to eventually demolish and dispose of construction materials when the building is no longer needed.

This footprint, known as embodied carbon, is estimated to account for 11% of global carbon emissions and 75% of a building’s emissions over its entire lifecycle. For the building industry, reducing embodied carbon is the next big challenge.

That’s the reasoning behind a new campaign aiming to put embodied carbon on the agenda of lawmakers and to start putting an upper limit on how much embodied carbon a building can have. The campaign is an effort of the Architects Climate Action Network, a grassroots industry group founded by a few designers in 2019 that has rapidly grown to include more than 1,000 supporters across the U.K.

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