Reducing Embodied Carbon and How Vinyl Can Play a Role

September 23, 2021

At Greenbuild this year, the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3) tool was launched by the Carbon Leadership Forum. This new tool takes lifecycle assessments (LCAs) and Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) to estimate a product’s embodied carbon emissions. The goal of the tool is to provide a simple method of evaluating and comparing embodied carbon emissions in the design and procurement phase to enable a lower carbon footprint overall.

Through collaboration with the Carbon Leadership Forum and the development of this tool, the Vinyl Institute aims to help manufacturers highlight the relatively low carbon impacts of their vinyl products for architects and contractors, while helping the industry discover new opportunities for continued improvement. Our vision is to make a positive contribution to the building and construction market as they seek to change the culture from being focused on first-cost metrics, to one which prioritizes long-term societal benefits.

What is embodied carbon?

Good question. When it comes to building and construction projects, there are two types of carbon engineers, architects, designers and others look at: operational carbon and embodied carbon.

Operational carbon considers how many greenhouse gases (GHGs) are released during the useful life of a building, which can include heating and cooling the building, electricity, hot water use, etc. Embodied carbon considers the amount of GHGs that are released during the life cycle of a product from raw material extraction through installation in a building, all the way through the end of its useful life and beginning of its next one where appropriate. Another way of thinking about embodied carbon is that it is the carbon footprint of a material.

Why is our carbon footprint important?

In 2017, carbon dioxide made up 82 percent of all GHG emissions in the U.S., making it the primary GHG emitted through human activities. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), GHG emissions from human activities are also “the most significant driver of observed climate change.”

According the Carbon Leadership Forum, the building and construction sector is responsible for at least 39 percent of global carbon emissions. Currently, most of these emissions are coming from the operational carbon of the building. But over the next 40 years, that’s going to change, and embodied carbon will make up most of building and construction’s carbon footprint, as it’s predicted that the world’s population will be building the equivalent of an entirely new New York City every month.

You’re probably familiar with the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, or have at least heard of it. It’s the U.S. Green Building Council’s green building rating system. The most recent LEED update addresses and rewards lower embodied carbon in building projects through a new pilot credit. Building materials, while part of the climate problem currently, can be part of the climate solution in the future.

Why is the launch of EC3 so exciting?

The EC3 tool can help anyone determine ways to reduce the carbon footprint of a building in the early stages of the construction process. Within the tool, you can map out your entire project and see where the embodied carbon emission is highest and where you can reduce through identification and selection of alternative materials. The EC3 tool relies on digitized versions of thousands of environmental product declarations (EPDs) that have been made available. Even in its early days, the hard work by the developers pays off in that the tool projects a clear path toward being broadly beneficial across the entire range of building and interior materials.

The tool was also designed to be free so it’s available for use by anyone, and you don’t need to seek approval from leadership to purchase access to the tool—it makes the option to increase sustainability just a little bit more accessible to everyone.

How does vinyl fit in?

As for vinyl’s role in this discussion, life cycle assessments have repeatedly shown that vinyl products provide low-carbon alternatives in many building applications. Nonetheless, the industry is committed to further cutting emissions. Led by the Vinyl Sustainability Council, and based on an industry-specific materiality analysis, we formed an Emissions Task Group, whose work supports the +Vantage Vinyl priority areas and emissions goals. One priority area is to reduce Scope 1 and 2 emissions to air, notably GHGs that are included as part of the embodied carbon of the building products that would be listed in the EC3 tool.

With +Vantage Vinyl, we’ve structured this initiative to demonstrate the vinyl industry’s commitment to continuous improvement. Each year, we will determine a new set of goals that need to be met that are more difficult to achieve and more impactful to the environment—we’re in the midst of establishing 2020’s emissions goals right now. Individual companies are also demonstrating their own commitment by creating more EPDs that summarize the impacts of their products.

EPDs for vinyl products such as LVT flooring are already being compiled into the beta version of EC3, and we have started working with the EC3 developers and product manufacturers to establish categories for a variety of vinyl building materials in the tool. We anticipate that collaboration with the Carbon Leadership Forum and the EC3 tool developers will help project specifiers and general contractors to realize both the first cost and the societal benefits of selecting vinyl for their project needs, delivering a robust return on investment for their stakeholders as well as for those manufacturers who are committed to developing and delivering lower-carbon alternatives.