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Embodied Carbon Emissions from Construction

Shaila Venkat

The construction industry has long been recognized as a major contributor to global carbon emissions. While the focus has primarily been on operational carbon emissions generated during a building’s lifecycle, the concept of embodied carbon emissions from building and construction materials is gaining momentum as a critical component in sustainable construction practices. Embodied carbon refers to the total amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions associated with the production, transportation, and installation of construction materials.

Embodied carbon emissions have often been overshadowed by operational carbon emissions, the former of which result from a building's energy use over its lifespan. However, recent research emphasizes the importance of addressing both aspects to achieve meaningful reductions in the construction sector's overall carbon footprint. Embodied carbon accounts for approximately 11% of global carbon emissions annually, emphasizing the need and urgency for comprehensive strategies to tackle both operational and embodied carbon emissions.

According to the Carbon Leadership Forum (CLF), embodied carbon emissions are categorized into two main types: “upfront” and “recurrent.” Upfront emissions result from the extraction, production, and transportation of materials, while recurrent emissions stem from maintenance, repair, and replacements throughout the building’s life. The CLF emphasizes that early design decisions play a pivotal role in mitigating embodied carbon because material choices have a lasting impact on a building's emissions trajectory.

Architecture and design professionals play a crucial role in addressing embodied carbon emissions. Architecture 2030 asserts that architects have the power to shape a more sustainable future by specifying low-carbon materials during construction, which could greatly reduce the embodied carbon emissions of the entire process. With concrete, steel, and aluminum being responsible for 23% of total global CO2 emissions, this switch is more dire than ever. In order for this to occur, designers must commit to setting ambitious goals to reduce embodied carbon in building materials and outline strategies to achieve these goals. Architects are urged to collaborate closely with manufacturers to develop innovative, low-carbon alternatives and influence material production practices.

The urgency to curb embodied carbon emissions has prompted policymakers and organizations to develop guidelines and regulations, with one of the most important approaches being the incorporation of embodied carbon metrics into building codes. By integrating these metrics, stakeholders can make informed decisions that prioritize low-carbon materials and methods, facilitating access to more robust databases that accurately assess embodied carbon emissions and track progress over time.

Addressing embodied carbon emissions necessitates a collaborative effort across the construction industry’s value chain. Embracing data-driven approaches is essential for identifying high-impact interventions because accurate data on emissions associated with various materials can guide decisions and encourage the adoption of low-carbon alternatives. The CLF echoes this sentiment, stressing the importance of life cycle assessment tools to evaluate materials’ carbon footprints comprehensively.

As the world strives to combat climate change, embodied carbon emissions from building and construction materials demand immediate attention. By adopting sustainable material choices, promoting innovative design practices, and integrating accurate measurement standards, the construction industry can significantly reduce its carbon footprint. The urgency of addressing embodied carbon emissions cannot be understated—now is the time for collective action to shape a more sustainable and resiliently built environment.


  1. McKinsey & Company. (2021). Data to the rescue: Embodied carbon in buildings and the urgency of now.

  2. Carbon Leadership Forum. (2023). Embodied Carbon 101.

  3. Architecture 2030. (2023). Embodied Carbon Actions.

  4. New Buildings Institute. (2023). Embodied Carbon.

  5. Image from


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