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Addressing embodied carbon: five steps for developers – Construction & Planning

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With a growing list of corporations making a commitment
to net-zero and to decarbonising their footprint, property
developers have increasingly been considering how to reduce the
emissions associated with built form, such as those arising from
the production of building materials and the performance of
construction work and how they can be reduced. Known as
’embodied carbon’, these emissions are estimated to account
for 35-45% of a standard building’s lifecycle carbon

To take just one example, most buildings will incorporate steel
and concrete; two materials which are traditionally
energy-intensive and therefore are considered to have high embodied

There are a range of initiatives underway that are seeking to
drive change towards lower embodied carbon outcomes, including the
work (and resources) of the Materials and Embodied Carbon
Leaders’ Alliance (MECLA) and the Green
Building Council of Australia (GBCA).

Even so, there is some uncertainty about when (and if) tangible
embodied carbon benchmarks for construction will be prescribed and
regulated for future property development. There is also no
official or accepted industry wide method for measuring embodied
carbon in construction projects.

So, for a developer who wants to take immediate steps towards
reducing embodied carbon in their developments it is not as simple
as prescribing compliance with a single standard, and passing that
risk down through the contractual chain.

However, there are some steps that developers can take today
towards addressing embodied carbon issues in their

1. Appoint a carbon planning consultant

Developers can initially set a carbon budget for their
development with the assistance of a carbon planning consultant.
Consultants can help developers to set appropriate carbon budgets
based on their experience with other similar projects and drawing
from the growing body of resources published by MECLA and GBCA and

Once the carbon budget for a project has been determined it can
then be used as a reference point throughout the development
process. A carbon budget, like any budget, will be subject to
adjustment during this process.

After a developer has measured carbon on one project it is able
to use that data as a benchmark to measure carbon outcomes and set
target for other projects. In that way, developers can demonstrate
and develop processes for continuous improvement in reducing
embodied carbon emissions in their projects.

2. Consider embodied carbon in site selection and early stage
feasibility and design processes

By engaging with the issue of embodied carbon early in the site
selection and feasibility process, developers will be able to
identify embodied carbon ‘hot spots’ and take steps to
change the embodied carbon footprint of the development via site
selection, design refinement, materials selection and procurement
processes. For example, using the foundations and structure of an
existing building, is likely to significantly lower embodied carbon
compared to the development of a new building.

Material selection is another key issue, particularly given the
current significant pressures on material supply chains. Finding
the right materials for a project requires consideration –
not just of the embodied carbon associated with the manufacture of
the materials selected, but also whether those materials will be
available as and when required, and the distance and method of
transporting the materials to the project site.

Of course, cost is another important consideration, as lower
embodied carbon materials may be more expensive in the short

As with the carbon budget, this is an iterative process and may
be subject to change. Careful contract drafting will be required to
give a contractor sufficient flexibility to achieve the embodied
carbon outcomes without sacrificing other key requirements such as
time and quality.

4. Finding the right contractors and briefing the construction

The developer’s project team will need to be briefed on the
embodied carbon objective and their role in achieving the embodied
carbon targets.

When going to market for contractors, developers will need to
articulate their carbon objective and how the terms for engagement
of contractors will address and facilitate the achievement of that

A building contract for a project with an embodied carbon
objective must carefully consider a number of contract terms

  • how the embodied carbon targets for the project will be
    articulated, and how compliance with those targets will be
    measured, monitored and reported on during the build phase;

  • how embodied carbon will be considered in the context of any
    variations to the project brief – for example, when and what
    substitute materials can be used where low embodied carbon
    materials are unavailable? How are cost adjustments managed?;

  • the consequences of a builder failing to satisfy its
    obligations associated with the embodied carbon targets and
    objectives. Because a requirement to re-do work would generally be
    inconsistent with an objective of reduced embodied carbon, it is
    more likely that an abatement or liquidated damages regime will be
    imposed: for example, the builder may be required to contribute to
    the cost of buying carbon offsets as a consequence of a failure to
    meet the relevant target.

5. Consider how to market the project

Given the uncertainties outlined above, a developer may face
challenges in marketing its project. If there is no widely accepted
standard to be adhered to, and if the supply chain challenges might
put at risk use of materials which might reduce embodied carbon
emissions (in spite of everyone’s best endeavours), how can
such a project be positioned?

One option is to express the developers’ objectives in terms
of targets2 or objectives, which must be carefully
formulated to ensure transparency and accountability, and to
minimise the prospect of greenwashing allegations later being

6. Manage embodied carbon throughout the building life

Embodied carbon issues remain relevant during the building life
cycle and consideration should be given to the impact of embodied
carbon on how the building is managed and maintained. For example,
through minimising the need for repair, replacement or
refurbishment, and where such works are required, through
consideration of the embodied carbon matters discussed above at
steps 2 and 3.

At a time when investors and other development stakeholders are
prioritising how to address their carbon footprint, considering
embodied carbon in construction and building projects presents both
challenges and opportunities for developers.

By taking steps today towards better understanding and reducing
embodied carbon in construction, developers will gain valuable
lived experience with embodied carbon issues and position
themselves as industry leaders in this space for the years to


1 Slattery Upfront Embodied Carbon Benchmarks,
Measure to manage: Benchmarking embodied carbon in Australia, May

2 As Dexus has done in relation to
Atlassian’s new HQ in Sydney.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.

    Lawyers Weekly
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