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It is high time to shed more light on Whole Life Carbon assessments

05/01/2024
  • The built environment and the construction industry account for 36% of greenhouse gas emissions. To achieve climate neutrality of the economy by 2050, emissions must be reduced throughout the whole lifecycle of buildings: from the production of building components through to construction and use, and demolition.
  • The currently discussed amendment of the Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the energy performance of buildings (EPBD) will amend, among other things, energy performance certificates and will mandate calculating the Lifecycle Global Warming Potential.
  • Although Poland is among those countries that have not mandated calculating the whole life carbon footprint of a building as yet, it is likely to be obliged to adapt to upcoming requirements.
  • Existing European standards and systems of building assessment will help us develop a methodology for WLC (Whole Life Carbon) assessments.

The “European Climate Law” Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council sets the goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2050 and an indirect target of cutting net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% compared with 1990 levels. These ambitious goals result from the commitments of the Paris Agreement, which was adopted in December 2015. Its parties undertook to keep the average global temperature increase below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to keep it to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

The construction industry is one of the key areas of interest as regards a pathway to climate neutrality. In the European Union, properties consume 40% of final energy and produce 36% of greenhouse gas emissions before a building is built (e.g. production of construction products), during its use and after the end of its useful life. That is why the vision of decarbonized building stock goes beyond taking action towards improving energy efficiency which has been a focal point so far. Reducing whole lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions also calls for improving the energy efficiency of product manufacturing, saving raw materials and implementing circular economy mechanisms.

 

The lifecycle Global Warming Potential (GWP) and other changes in the recast EPBD

 

The key legislative instrument in achieving the above decarbonization objectives is the planned amendment to the Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the energy performance of buildings (EPBD). The draft recast, or the revision of the previous version of the document, of December 2019 contains many new provisions supporting the achievement of the increasingly ambitious objectives of the EU policy for buildings. On 15 December 2021, the European Commission adopted the revision of the EPBD, and on 14 March 2023, the European Parliament adopted its position, based on the report of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE). Interinstitutional negotiations are currently under way. The new version of the directive is expected to be passed in the next few months and to enter into force on the 20th day following its publication in the Official Journal of the European Union.

The new recast EPBD covers many aspects associated with buildings - it introduces the definition of zero-emission buildings (all new buildings designed from 2030 onwards and public buildings from 2027), changes to energy performance certificates, and mandates calculating the lifecycle global warming potential. This requirement – similarly to all zero-emission buildings – will apply to all new buildings from 2030 and to buildings with a useful floor area of over 2,000 sqm from 1 January 2027. A building’s whole lifecycle global warming potential is to be disclosed in an energy performance certificate.

According to the definition in the revised EPBD,

“the global warming potential (GWP) over the whole lifecycle indicates the building’s overall contribution to emissions that lead to climate change. It brings together greenhouse gas emissions embodied in construction products with direct and indirect emissions from the use stage. A requirement to calculate the lifecycle global warming potential of new buildings therefore constitutes a first step towards increased consideration of the whole lifecycle performance of buildings and a circular economy”.

A building’s lifecycle stages considered in carbon assessments

 

According to the new definition in the new EPBD,

“whole lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions means the combined greenhouse gas emissions associated with the building at all stages of its lifecycle (…) from the ‘cradle’ (the extraction of the raw materials that are used in the construction of the building) over the material production and processing, and the building’s operation stage, to the ‘end-of-life’ (the deconstruction of the building and reuse, recycling, other recovery and disposal of its materials)”.

The lifecycle of a building has been divided according to PN-EN 15978 into stages shown in Table 1.

Building Lifecycle Table  

Table 1. Lifecycle stages according to LCA methodology. Source: Based on PN-EN 15978:2011

The whole lifecycle of a building consists of the following stages:

  • The product stage, which covers all emissions associated with the manufacture of construction products – all processes and transport associated with raw material extraction, transportation to a manufacturing plant and manufacturing processes.
  • The construction process stage, which covers transportation of construction products to a construction site (from the gate of a manufacturing plant to the construction site), transportation of construction equipment and on-site construction processes (e.g. the use of cranes, diggers, etc.) and related greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The use stage, which concerns emissions due to both heating, cooling and lighting (B6 – energy use) and the replacement or repair of a building’s components during dozens of years of its use. This module also covers B7 (water use).
  • The end of life stage, which covers scenarios for a building’s demolition. This stage may include two approaches: static and dynamic. The static approach assumes that all boundary conditions remain unchanged. This means that analysis takes no account of, for instance, changes to energy-mix, technologies of materials manufacture or their improvement with regard to energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. It is the most frequent path for such analyses as it is based on a smaller number of assumptions and reflects the current market situation. The dynamic approach takes account of changes that can occur during a building’s lifecycle spanning dozens of years. It takes account of, for instance, changes to how greenhouse gas emissions associated with electricity production are calculated.

For the calculation of the lifecycle global warming potential of new buildings pursuant to Article 7 of the recast EPBD, the global warming potential is communicated as a numeric indicator for each lifecycle stage expressed as kgCO2e/m2 averaged for one year of a reference study period of 50 years. CO2e means the combined emissions of all greenhouse gases listed in the Kyoto Protocol [1] and referenced as a single common indicator.

The data selection for assessments and calculations is carried out in accordance with EN 15978 (EN 15978:2011[2]). The scope of building components and technical equipment is as defined in the Level(s) common EU framework [3].

 

We urgently need to take quick action to get ready for WLC assessments

 

At present, there is no legislation in Poland mandating Whole Life Carbon (WLC) assessments. The only requirement is to disclose in an energy performance certificate individual operational emissions of CO2 associated with energy use during the use stage.

Several EU countries, including Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Sweden and Finland, have already introduced relevant regulations in recent years. The implementation process took many years to complete and was preceded by research and public and professional consultations. There are slight differences between assessment methodologies in these countries which lie, among other things, in the scope of assessment in terms of both lifecycle stages and individual building components assessed. The inclusion of such a requirement in the new recast of the EPBD also aims to standardize methodologies and introduce one applicable to all Member States. For Poland, this will mean having to introduce a new methodology from scratch quickly and to harmonize national legislation with the final provisions of the recast directive.

The biggest difficulty in carrying out such assessments it the lack of data on the emission indicators of all construction products on the Polish market. As there are no official Polish databases on emissions of construction products and equipment available, foreign databases and information in Type III Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) can be used instead. Such declarations are the best source of information on emission indicators of individual construction products. In Poland, the leader for EPDs is the Building Research Institute (Instytut Techniki Budowlanej), which has contributed approximately 250 EPDs to the national list of environmental declarations.

To increase the uptake of such assessments (which will soon become mandatory), a joint effort of all stakeholders, including policy-makers, scientific institutions, designers and investors, will be required. It will be necessary to develop national databases and calculation tools, and to carry out pilot assessments of this type not only for newly designed buildings, but also for existing buildings undergoing major thermal performance improvements.



 

[1] The Kyoto Protocol, negotiated in 1997, is a protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and an international treaty on counteracting global warming.

[2] One of the standards developed by the Technical Committee CEN/TC 350, which is responsible for the development of horizontal European Standards for the assessment of sustainability of buildings covering the assessment of environmental, social and economic performance based on LCA and quantifiable measures.

[3] For details on the Level(s) system, visit: https://susproc.jrc.ec.europa.eu/product-bureau/sites/default/files/2023-02/ENV-2020-00021-02-01-PL-TRA-00_0.pdf 

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