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Passports to a net zero carbon future

August 31, 2021

By Dominic Ryan

How materials passports can help designers achieve social value and net-zero carbon

Climate change, net zero carbon, circular economies, social value, health and safety, environmental protection—how can we better equip ourselves to win these battles? The answer lies in innovation and the development of new processes to support us in the fight.

In 2020, our team began exploring the creation of a materials passport—a means of tracking materials through the value chain so that these issues can be improved. Stantec’s materials passport looked to log the location, embodied carbon, ingredients, and other attributes of products as they make their way through the value chain. Our materials passport wanted to include all the players in the value chain, from exploration and extraction all the way through to the end user and the products’ reuse at the end of its design life.

A materials passport would help measure and track an asset’s social impact, future value, health and safety related attributes, carbon footprint, and design performance so that people can better understand how well it fits with their own values. It can be a new tool for the fourth industrial revolution—a new platform to “measure, record, improve.”

While the production of materials passports won’t be possible for our team soon, we know their existence would certainly be of benefit, not only to the business but also to our neighboring industries, communities, and clients. Therefore, it is well worth sharing what we know so far.

Passport challenges

For Stantec’s exploration of a materials passport, we needed to pick something simple for a prototype, so we started with:

  • Product: Polyethylene pipes
  • Traceable qualities: Embodied carbon, batch numbers, and materials ingredients
  • Links in supply chain: Exploration, extraction, refinement, and manufacture

Could we trace these things? Kind of, but there were challenges and the largest one by far was around the love-hate relationship we have with carbon. No one we approached wanted to talk about it.

Every person is responsible in some way for releasing carbon into the atmosphere—from the flights we take to the water we receive from our taps. While we’re at it, as humans, we are even made of carbon! Despite all this we hate the stuff, which is natural given its impact on our planet. As a result, companies are unwilling to divulge any information they have about their carbon footprint. That’s the strange thing about carbon—it’s a dirty word and it will need a bit of a cleanup if we want to achieve net zero.

Let’s look at how we can make an impact. To get to net-zero carbon, hard lines need to be taken. Perhaps an all-out assault is only serving to push the subject into the shadows, creating a complete lack of transparency. If we were to say to CEOs of, for example, oil refineries: “Hey, we understand that embodied carbon goes with the territory with current technologies,” then maybe they would be more open about how it’s being measured and wearing the numbers on their sleeves. If you were a sprinter trying to improve your 100-metre sprint time, wouldn’t it be valuable to have confidence in your run times? We need the accurate data, so if we make carbon a taboo subject, we jeopardize its measurement. 

Carbon—it’s a dirty word and it will need a bit of a cleanup if we want to achieve net zero.

Passport positives

So, how could a future with materials passports be better? Let’s imagine you’re an investor buying an apartment block for lease, you can offer up passports to your tenants. Here are a few benefits:

Ethics and social value

Your tenants would know where the materials have come from, determine if they have been ethically sourced, produced, and handled, as well as how many miles they have journeyed. This feeling of emotional investment could work in everyone’s favour.

Embodied carbon

A figure for embodied carbon can be calculated and assigned to an apartment, creating transparency so that choices can be made as to whether it’s a good fit with the tenant’s stance on carbon reduction. Some would pay a premium to lower that all-important number.

Toxic materials

People have children and pets, and the toxicity of the apartment’s finishings is important information to have to keep everyone safe. Sure, we have come a long way since we had lead in paint and asbestos in curtains, but who knows, there could be new materials we use today that seem perfectly fine—as lead and asbestos did back in the day—only to discover in the future that there is some toxic or harmful quality about them. A materials passport would pool together this kind of data.

Flammability

How flammable is the apartment block? In the UK, we can’t forget the utterly tragic event on July 14, 2017, when the Grenfell Tower caught fire killing 72 people. This called for an improvement of building regulations that has led to investigations into combustible materials being used in cladding. Materials passports could serve as a proactive measure allowing quick identification of such things when a sudden change in regulation needs to be actioned.

Global adoption

The creation of materials passports will need more than individual entities trying to kick-start the process. It will need a tide of change, getting all stakeholders on board at the ground level instead of having a few individuals trying to create something fully formed in isolation, it needs a holistic approach with everyone buying-in at the same time.

So, how do we do that?

One way might be through institutions and associations. If they show support for materials passports and offer platforms for people to express their ideas about them, this might allow for a springboard of influence so that necessary tipping points can be reached. Once hearts and minds are won, legislations and frameworks can be developed and rolled out.

The full spectrum of industries could then start slowly and build momentum, maybe adopting miniature materials passports at first. For example, start with the toxicity of materials as they migrate and evolve through the value chain and then expand it to other attributes. Whatever is needed for materials passports to get up and running, it would be better to start with everyone doing a little bit, instead of a few people doing it perfectly.

The personal touch

The fourth industrial revolution has ushered in the concept of people being their own brands. In some ways, whether we like it or not, we define our brand all the time. The classic example of this in the past has been fashion. Now we can have the opportunity to extend this to many other things in our lives, and materials passports can help us with that.

What’s more, passports can be produced at every stage of the supply chain. Investors are brands. Construction companies are brands. Manufacturers, refiners, and extractors are brands. With materials passports, all the players in a product’s journey can make decisions in line with what their brand stands for.

  • Dominic Ryan

    Dominic is a civil engineer for our Water group focused on hydraulic modelling. He is currently working on the outline design of a clean water treatment plant and carries out investigative work, compiles calculations, and checks technical outputs.

    Contact Dominic
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