Working Toward a Zero Carbon Future

By Christian Jebsen, CEO Kebony

The carbon cycle is a natural phenomenon which allows the Earth to sustain life. This means healthy amounts of carbon are naturally present in the Earth’s atmosphere. However, human activity and the onset of industrialization have dramatically altered this equilibrium by increasing the amount of carbon dioxide emitted and decreasing the number of natural sinks used to remove it from the atmosphere. Although countless industries are responsible for this altered state, one in particular is making headway in the race to solve this global issue.

The construction industry contributes a significant amount of carbon into the atmosphere each year, thus the International Union of Architects is proposing a change. In 2014, the union’s 124 member countries came to the unanimous decision to phase out carbon emissions from the building sector by 2050. The initiative, titled 2050 Imperative, aims to reduce carbon emissions to zero by implementing new practices that will ensure a sustainable future.

In order to reach this lofty goal, the building sector must evaluate the immediate changes they can make to traditional processes. Though the list is lengthy, there are three actions that can easily be implemented to lead the effort to reduce carbon emissions.

Incorporate More Wood

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), industrial processes are responsible for releasing 15% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere each year. In large part, this statistic is the result of producing and consuming building materials such as steel, iron and cement. Therefore, the first steps the building sector must take toward reducing emissions will be adopting the use of renewable, sustainably sourced materials—like wood.

Research from the Journal of Sustainable Forestry shows that using wood for new construction could decrease global carbon emissions by up to 31%. For starters, forests are carbons sinks that naturally absorb carbon dioxide. The wood releases the oxygen into the atmosphere and retains the carbon to produce sugars. Once the wood is manufactured, it continues storing this carbon for the entirety of its lifetime. In fact, when measuring dry weight, carbon accounts for nearly half of wood’s weight.

While an increase in wood harvesting may sound counterproductive from an environmental standpoint, it actually provides greater returns for the forest. Clearing trees for harvest is a temporary process and a tenet of sustainable forest management, reducing the risk of forest fires. It is only when forests are cleared for farmland or civic development that these natural resources are permanently lost.

The manufacturing processes used to produce wood products use less fossil fuel-based energy than those used to make steel and concrete. Increasing the number of projects that use wood as the principle construction material has the potential to decrease annual fossil fuel consumption by 19%.

Plan Responsible Supply Chains

Construction projects emit gases before the building even begins because of the shipment of materials. Transportation accounts for 30% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, and six to eight percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions for a construction project. Proper planning and environmentally friendly transportation methods can significantly reduce the impact of material transit. For example, freight trains can transport a ton of material more than 450 miles using just one gallon of fuel, while an average semi tractor-trailer can only carry that ton of freight 140 miles on a single gallon of fuel.

Using locally-sourced materials for construction projects can also reduce carbon emissions. Cutting down a product’s travel distance lessens its environmental impact. An easy way to incorporate local materials into building projects is to introduce them at the onset of a building project. Although regional access may offer limitations, it’s easier to adjust plans to fit what’s available locally in the design phase than after ground is broken.

Once at the job site, project managers should map out where materials will be placed in the project area to ensure the most effective use of space. Avoid altering the natural environment with temporary storage structures, especially if it involves moving soil. While any disturbance to the natural environment creates a negative impact, moving soil particularly affects the amount of carbon released during a building project. Most ecosystems store carbon underground and disturbing soil will release this stored carbon into the atmosphere.

Consider Longevity

zero3Finally, using products with long life cycles greatly reduces carbon emissions by simply eliminating the need to replace materials as often. There are sustainable materials on the market for nearly every building need and many are now made of recycled materials to reduce the emission of carbon and other chemicals into the atmosphere. For example, companies now offer insulation made with recycled sheep’s wool and cotton. These insulations provide the same benefits as traditional products but do not contain harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde or acrylics used in fiberglass insulations that can cause respiratory problems.

In addition to reducing carbon emissions, sustainable products also provide an economic advantage. Not only do homeowners and facility managers spend less on maintenance and repair, they also save 30% more annually on energy and water usage with sustainable materials as opposed to traditional building materials.

Phasing out carbon emissions from the building sector will involve extensive research and planning by all players in the construction industry over the next 35 years. By gradually incorporating these and other methods into each stage of the building process, architects hope to soon find that their zero-carbon goal is absolutely within reach.

Christian Jebsen is the CEO of Kebony, a sustainable alternative to tropical hardwood. Kebony’s technology permanently modifies sustainable softwoods species, so the resulting product performs to the level of a hardwood. Kebony is beautiful and long-lasting, having been used in projects – from decking to marinas to cladding – around the world.

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