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Embodied carbon: Mining to decarbonize buildings

September 12, 2023

By Beth Tomlinson and Debra Johnson

Decarbonizing mining is a natural place to start when decarbonizing other industries

How much greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were emitted during construction of the building you’re sitting in right now? When we think of reducing carbon and GHG emissions, we often focus on transportation fuels. But buildings we use every day also need a lot of energy for their construction and operations. In fact, the buildings industry accounts for nearly 40% of global GHG emissions.

Basic building materials contain lots of “embodied carbon,” which are emissions that contribute to a building’s total carbon footprint. Embodied carbon includes the GHG emissions associated with extracting raw materials. It also includes the emissions from transporting and manufacturing building materials. Then, factor in the carbon from construction, maintenance, operation, and end-of-life. This means the whole life cycle of a building creates more emissions than the energy used during daily operations.

Encouraging more sustainable buildings

Policies are already in place to reduce the daily operational emissions for buildings. For example, New York City passed a local law that requires existing buildings to reduce their operational emissions by 80% by 2050. This law includes fines for failing to meet emissions caps. If building operational emissions are not reduced by 2025 to the City’s emissions limits, determined by property type and size, owners are liable for fines of $268 for every metric ton of CO2e over the allotted cap. That cap becomes more stringent over time. New York City also has a new (2022) regulation for embodied carbon emissions for municipal construction projects. This low-embodied-carbon leadership act sets embodied carbon emission standards for their public works projects. 

Many major cities around the world are implementing operational carbon emissions requirements.

New York City is not alone. Many cities around the world are developing their own construction emission regulations.  In addition, the state of California recently added embodied carbon limits in their building codes for any commercial building over 100,000 square feet or school building over 50,000 square feet. These limits will apply to new construction, remodel, or adaptive reuse projects as of July 2025.

For the past 50 years, the buildings industry has prioritized energy efficiency as a method to reduce operational emissions. As operational emissions approach net zero through technology improvements and building codes, attention to embodied carbon emissions increases. It’s encouraging to see a broader focus on the whole lifecycle of a building’s decarbonization transition.

A closer look at carbon in building materials

To better understand embodied carbon, let’s focus on some of the core materials that make up the structure of most buildings. Concrete is one of the biggest culprits of embodied carbon. The concrete industry alone is responsible for about 11% of global GHG emissions every year. The ubiquitous, gray material is made up of more than nine mined materials, including aggregates, lime, silica, alumina, and iron oxide. The traditional process for making the cement that is used in concrete emits a lot of carbon. Major companies in the industry are working to reduce cement’s carbon intensity with new methods. Some methods can even use the final product—concrete—to capture and store carbon.

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Concrete requires more than nine mined materials – including rocks, sand, lime, silica, alumina, and iron oxide.

Steel is another popular building material. Steel production accounts for about 10% of the global GHG emissions. In fact, traditional production of one ton of steel generates almost two tons of CO2 emissions. Steel used in buildings is typically an alloy, meaning it is a mixture of mined elements like iron and carbon, along with nickel, molybdenum, silicon, and other elements. Several iron ore miners, along with steel producers, are investing billions to help the steel industry decarbonize. Because of these investments, we expect to see more carbon-friendly steel coming soon.

Early calculations in a building’s design phase can greatly reduce carbon emissions. For example, The Curve Library in the United Kingdom has an embodied carbon footprint reduction of 600 tons of carbon dioxide compared to the original scheme. The library also uses solar panels on the roof, earning environmental recognition. It achieved a ‘Very Good’ score from BREAM—the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology.

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The Curve Library outside of London. When built, the library achieved an embodied carbon footprint reduction of 600 tons of carbon dioxide compared to the original scheme. (Architect of Record: bblur architecture)

Power of procurement and specification of low carbon (GHG emitting) materials incentivizes the entire supply chain to change. As with almost all modern, built infrastructure, the mining industry starts the whole carbon life cycle. The good news is that both the mining industry and the buildings industry’s net zero emission goals are similar. By working together, both industries are aligned to do their part in limiting future climate change.

It starts with decarbonizing mining

Like the buildings industry, the mining industry is facing financial implications tied to decarbonization. The challenge is that while consumers may be willing to pay more for low-carbon products, known as a Green Premium, commodity pricing currently has no way to reward miners who are investing to reduce their carbon footprint. Mining companies are investing anyway. And they are doing this for many reasons. Their shareholders and investors are demanding it. The communities they operate in are demanding it. And their customers are demanding it. Resource companies must earn a social license to operate. They earn the license with high environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance and low carbon intensity.

When the building and mining industries work together, we can better understand the drivers and demand for reducing carbon emissions, as well as the benefits of proactively addressing those emissions today.

All major mining companies who belong to the International Council on Mining and Metals are committed to a goal of net zero Scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions by 2050 or sooner. Many of those companies also have progress goals, such as 30% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030. This is in line with the Paris Agreement’s goal of substantially reducing global GHG emissions. The aim is to limit the global temperature increase in this century to 2 degrees Celsius while pursuing efforts to limit the increase even further to 1.5 degrees.

The general population, investors, and other industries are pushing for the mining industry to decarbonize. Reducing the emissions from extracting and processing mined materials at the front-end of the supply chain reduces the carbon footprint along the chain.

For example, the Northern Goldfields Renewable Energy Solar Project was the first solar photovoltaic build in Australia for TransAlta Corporation. It was also BHP’s first large-scale, onsite solar farm and battery. The project supports BHP’s emissions reduction targets—delivering lower-carbon, sustainable nickel to its customers.

Adapting to a changing regulatory environment

In addition to reducing carbon in their operations, mining companies must also consider future regulations. By doing this, they can stay ahead of changes that might impact their business and the building supply chain. For example, the nickel industry is facing rapidly changing emissions expectations. Nickel is used in both building materials (like steel alloys) and in batteries. 

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Decarbonizing mining is a natural place to start when decarbonizing other industries.

We recently supported the Wingellina Nickel Project with changing regulatory conditions. Since the original approval of the mine, GHG emissions requirements had changed. The new requirements included a GHG management plan, reduction targets, and timeline leading to net zero by 2050. Our team stepped in to help the client meet these new obligations.

The rapidly evolving landscape of carbon accounting and reporting means mining companies need support. This is especially true for companies whose teams are not equipped with the specialized expertise to implement the new rules. Stantec helps both mining companies and building owners calculate their baseline GHG emissions and complete their reporting requirements. It’s critical to understand what impact decarbonization initiatives will have on operations, finances, and progress toward achieving net zero goals. Our team has the knowledge and tools needed to build a decarbonization roadmap.

A vision for the future

Consumers and investors wield a lot of power, voting with their money. Companies that can show their commitment to reducing emissions become more attractive investments. Commodity pricing currently lacks a way to reward miners who are reducing their carbon footprint. But it seems like the tides are slowly turning.

Better tracking and reporting will help investors and consumers know who is making strides in their decarbonization journey. When the building and mining industries work together, we can better understand the drivers and demand for reducing carbon emissions, as well as the benefits of proactively addressing those emissions today.

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  • Beth Tomlinson

    Beth has 20 years of experience in research and building design, resiliency, commissioning, and energy auditing. She is currently focused on integrating climate change mitigation and adaptation, commissioning, and energy transitions within projects.

    Contact Beth
  • Debra Johnson

    Debra works with mining companies to achieve and exceed their ESG, carbon neutrality and net zero goals. Based in Phoenix, she is committed to solving sustainability issues in the mining industry.

    Contact Debra
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