EIT Climate-KIC and partners release a practical guide to support cities move towards bio-based and circular buildings

Netherlands, 25 July 2022 – EIT Climate-KIC teamed up with a cohort of partners to develop a handbook to help cities reduce embodied carbon in construction.    

Buildings account for 39 % of global carbon emissions. Cities, as the places where most buildings are located, have a critical role to play in reducing these emissions. As energy efficiency increases and energy sources become cleaner, most of the emissions from buildings today are due to operational energy use. The Greenhouse Gas emissions arising from the manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance and disposal of building materials and components (what we call embodied carbon) will therefore continue to rise.

In Europe, embodied carbon already accounts for half of the whole life cycle carbon emissions of new buildings. In countries with relatively clean energy systems, such as Sweden, embodied carbon can already today exceed operational emissions. Using circular practices and biobased materials (such as timber) are key strategies to dramatically lower embodied carbon in construction, while offering the potential to secure multiple co-benefits for residents and workers.  

EIT Climate-KIC and partners have designed the Handbook: Bio-Based and Circular Buildings for Healthy, Clean Cities as an interactive manual and a tracking instrument. It contains information resources and step-by-step processes to help and align local stakeholders’ efforts around reducing embodied carbon emissions in buildings, understand and explore circular practices, and influence changes in the supply chain towards bio-based materials, such as timber – which are more sustainable than the current use of concrete and steel.

The guide was developed by thirteen partners as part of the project  Healthy, Clean Cities – EUropean CIties for climate-Neutral COnstruction (EU CINCO) to share the lessons learnt on positioning cities as market shapers for bio-based, circular, and carbon-neutral construction in two testbeds for urban regeneration in Madrid and Milan. The project, which is integrated in and follows the approach of EIT Climate-KIC’s Deep Demonstration programmes involves stakeholders from across the value chain: the public sector, industry, academia and research, and civic society.

The Handbook supports all actors in the building’s value chain to understand metrics used for decision-making . In doing so, it enables stakeholders to develop benchmarks, to track and evaluate indicators over time; to visualise the processes involved and understand how they need to evolve to lead to different outcomes ; and finally, to create models for collaborative decision-making towards shared goals.

The HCC EU CINCO project helped us pinpoint common challenges such as: labour shortages and disinvestment in rural areas owing to the rural exodus; long investment and ROI (Return on Investment) cycles in the forestry industry; lack of certified sustainable timber; timber market volatility; lack of widespread specialist skills in design and construction; lack of investment in manufacturing technology; reluctance to insure or invest in forestry management; and the overall atomised nature of the supply chain. Overall, the barriers impeding the transition to carbon neutrality are more often related to capacity, capabilities, and political and normative choices, than to technological limitations.

Because of the multi-lever and multi-actor nature of these challenges, they need to be addressed holistically, taking a whole value chain perspective. This means change needs to be designed, driven, delivered, monitored and learned from, by challenge owners – those with the means and mandate to address the challenge – and those most affected, including systematically excluded populations. Reducing embodied carbon in construction will depend, to a large extent, on being able to mobilise the complete multi-actor ecosystem of change to make and enact transformational decisions.

While there is significant interest and many relevant initiatives, these often lack explicit, effective cross-action learning mechanisms to drive broad, long-term impact beyond their scope and end date.

Mirroring the learnings from the HCC EU CINCO project in Milan and Madrid, the Handbook presents activities focused on the following priority levers of change:

  • Data, metrics, and process governance frameworks to enable decision-making that can support and accelerate the transition to zero embodied carbon and circular construction, including using local, sustainably sourced bio-based materials.
  • New decision-making frameworks, including innovation in policies, regulation, procurement, and tendering to support private and public stakeholders in shifting away from short-term and direct economic cost considerations towards a broader, more long-term understanding of value that encompasses social, environmental, financial, and climate benefits.
  • Finance and business model innovation to unlock investment and economic incentives that can accelerate the uptake of zero embodied carbon construction, circular practices, and the use of bio-based materials.
  • Value chain innovation, including data management, where data, digital, and new technologies support tendering, procurement, and investment to make the change possible.
  • Cross-fertilisation, sharing and learning from, with, and across local and international stakeholders, best-practice, other initiatives, networks, lighthouse projects, etc.

Juan Azcárate Luxan, Deputy director of Energy and Climate Change, Madrid City Council: “It is increasingly urgent for cities to include in their climate action plans the impact produced by emissions associated with the consumption of products (scope 3 emissions). In this sense, construction materials have become even more relevant, especially in the urban environment. Considering only operational energy consumption, the RCI sector (residential, commercial, and institutional) is the main source of GHG emissions in the city of Madrid (46,1 per cent). The carbon associated with the value chain of construction materials and processes makes this sector even more of a critical emitter. Therefore, there is an urgent need for projects such as HCC EU-CINCO to generate a deep knowledge about embodied carbon in construction materials and the applicability of bio-based materials, effectively promoting the decarbonization of our cities.

Giuseppina Sordi, Director Energy and Climate Area, Milan City Council: “As well as being a key part of our culture and society, buildings account for 39 per cent of global carbon emissions. Embodied carbon, resulting from the extraction and processing of raw materials as well as construction processes, is a growing share of these emission. If we want a built environment which looks after people and nature, we need to plan and build urban areas that are carbon neutral along the whole value chain. Cities have a key role to play in this transformation. Using practical learnings and methods from the Healthy, Clean Cities initiative in Milan, we are able to show how other European cities can become market shapers for bio-based and circular buildings.

Belén Piserra, Business Director of Crea Madrid Nuevo Norte, main developer of Madrid Nuevo Norte: “With over two million square meters of newly built space, Madrid Nuevo Norte is the largest urban regeneration project in Europe. As such, it carries a large responsibility in setting the trend for construction in Spain and in other regions and countries. It is imperative for us developers at Distrito Castellana Norte to pursue a high level of ambition in setting sustainability targets. Working with the Healthy, Clean Cities EU CINCO team, we were able to increase our understanding of the environmental and socioeconomic impact of our decisions as large procurers, as well as power to influence policy, regulation, innovative financing, value chains around low-carbon materials, and circularity, among other levers. After two years of engagement with EIT Climate-KIC, Laudes Foundation and their partners, we are considering a broad set of collaborative multi-stakeholder strategies to lower the carbon footprint or Madrid Nuevo Norte from the point of view of embodied carbon.”

Mira Conci, EIT Climate-KIC: “EIT Climate-KIC is exploring ways to expand and deepen support to the sustainable construction sector, building on our current initiative that focus on reducing embodied carbon in buildings through the adoption of bio-based materials and circularity. Together with our partners, and in strategic alignment with other key initiatives such as NetZeroCities and MIND – Perception of Timber, we are leading a positive change in the way we build and live in Europe, a rapid transformation towards beautiful, sustainable, and healthy buildings for all .”

Read the Handbook

About EIT Climate-KIC

EIT Climate-KIC is the EU’s climate innovation initiative, working to accelerate the transition to a zero-carbon and resilient world by enabling systems transformation. Headquartered in Amsterdam, it operates from 13 hubs across Europe and is active in 39 countries. EIT Climate-KIC was established in 2010 and is predominately funded by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), a body of the European Union.

As a Knowledge and Innovation Community (KIC), it brings together more than 400 partners from business, academia, the public and non-profit sectors to create networks of expertise, through which innovative products, services and systems are developed, brought to market and scaled-up for impact.

Press contact:

Anne-Sophie Garrigou, EIT Climate-KIC

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