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Life cycle assessment could cut carbon by at least 10%

Roughly three quarters of UK professionals believe that carbon could be reduced by one tenth, but a lack of regulation alongside poor developer and investor awareness is limiting progress, study finds

A low carbon impact was central to the design of Cambridge Central Mosque.
A low carbon impact was central to the design of Cambridge Central Mosque. Credit: Morley Von Sternberg

Almost three quarters of UK construction professionals believe a minimum 10% reduction in carbon is possible on projects when life cycle assessments (LCAs) or embodied carbon studies are carried out, the latest research has revealed.

The Construction LCA and Embodied Carbon Experts Outlook 2024 report, conducted by life cycle assessment software vendor One Click LCA, is based on a global survey of qualified professionals in the construction sector and related industries.

According to the findings, 71% of experts from the UK & Ireland believe at least a 10% carbon reduction is possible by conducting an LCA or embodied carbon studies, up from 56% in 2021, when the previous report was published.

That compares to 59% of experts worldwide who believe a minimum 10% target is achievable; 57% in Northern Europe and 39% in Continental Europe.

The report examined the key barriers to LCA progress and found that, on the demand side, a lack of understanding from developers and investors was the most limiting factor in the UK & Ireland with some 90% of experts regarding it as either ‘somewhat’ or ‘significantly’ limiting.

Global breakdown of construction professionals who believe at least a 10% reduction in carbon is possible by conducting an LCA or embodied carbon study
Global breakdown of construction professionals who believe at least a 10% reduction in carbon is possible by conducting an LCA or embodied carbon study Credit: One Click LCA

Furthermore, over half of respondents from the UK & Ireland said a lack of national regulations or policies was ‘significantly limiting’. This was also considered the most important factor at a global level, with 83% of respondents saying it was either somewhat or significantly limiting.

Panu Pasanen, CEO at One Click LCA, said: ‘The right direction is to mandate for every new building to have its carbon footprint assessed with maximum allowable limits, similar to Energy Performance Certificates. That is the direction the UK industry has been pushing for, with the development of Part Z of the Building Regulations.’

According to Pasanen, regulating embodied carbon would help tackle the problem of greenwashing so that manufacturers who make false claims are made liable. France has already introduced specific legislation to prevent false product claims.

Turning to the supply-side factors limiting LCA progress, a lack of manufacturer Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) ranked as the most significant factor among respondents from the UK & Ireland. This was also the most important factor worldwide, with 88% of respondents saying it was either somewhat or significantly limiting. The variable quality of EPDs and a lack of embodied carbon benchmarks were the other most limiting factors worldwide.

  • Global views on the demand-side factors that limit progress on embodied carbon and LCA
    Global views on the demand-side factors that limit progress on embodied carbon and LCA Credit: One Click LCA
  • Global views on the supply-side factors that limit progress on embodied carbon and LCA
    Global views on the supply-side factors that limit progress on embodied carbon and LCA Credit: One Click LCA
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‘A great many bigger manufacturers have EPDs, but typically only for some of their products, not the whole range, and a lot of other manufacturers haven't even put their toes in the water,’ said Pasanen. ‘The market needs to start choosing suppliers who can provide this sustainability data. Some leading companies, like British Land, do require it, but it's not the mainstream.’

According to Pasanen, over half of the top 100 architects in the UK market carry out LCAs on newbuilds, but ‘only on a sliver of their projects’. Developing an effective carbon reduction strategy on projects requires architects to engage with LCA early, before the design is locked in, he added. Although this could mean ‘high uncertainty’ in terms of possible carbon reductions, it provides the foundation for greater certainty once architects ‘are committed to a pathway’.

Architects also have a key role to play in raising awareness of the issue of embodied carbon with developers and investors, said Pasanen: ‘Clients are not in general well-informed enough to ask for specific requirements and then enforce them ... Architects should come forward with options for how to deliver a more sustainable product at an early stage, they could put forward three different designs, including a low carbon and a net zero option, and ask the client which path they want to take.’

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