Whole Life Carbon: Counting Every Carbon Step 2024

23 August, 2023

How Understanding Whole Life Carbon Shapes a Greener Future

Whole Life Carbon

In a growing carbon-conscious world, the concept of Whole Life Carbon (WLC) holds the key to sustainable progress and building cities of tomorrow.. We’re at a pivotal moment in the 21st century where rapid progress and innovation are all around us, yet one fundamental truth remains crystal clear – our planet’s health hangs in the balance.

As humanity grapples with the looming spectre of climate change, understanding and mitigating our carbon footprint has become paramount. In this blog, we explore Whole Life Carbon (WLC) and its myriad facets, delving into its significance, assessment methods, influence on industries, and potential to shape a sustainable future for generations to come.

Table of contents

What is Whole Life Carbon?

From towering skyscrapers to humble household items, everything we create bears its carbon footprint. WLC captures the cradle-to-grave journey of a product or a building. Unlike standard carbon assessments, which often focus solely on operational emissions, whole-life carbon assessment casts a wide net, encompassing every stage of a building’s existence – from its inception to its ultimate disposal or recycling. This holistic approach offers a comprehensive and detailed perspective on the true environmental impact, making it an indispensable guide for fostering informed decisions and shaping a greener, more sustainable future.

How do we assess WLC?

At its essence, Whole Life Carbon transcends the limitations of conventional carbon assessments by offering a panoramic view of a product or building’s environmental footprint. The real estate industry accounts for 40% of the global emission, making it one of the largest contributors.

The heart of Whole Life Carbon lies in its ability to dissect and analyze the stages that constitute a product’s lifecycle. There are two types of emission one has to consider while assessing the carbon footprint of a building – embodied carbon and operational carbon.

Embodied Carbon

Embodied carbon refers to the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions resulting from the manufacture, installation, transportation, maintenance, and disposal of building materials. Think of embodied carbon as the “hidden” CO2 that goes into making a finished product. By contrast, operational carbon refers to emissions caused by the building’s energy use.

Embodied carbon is often more difficult to measure and track than operational carbon, and would require self-assessment and transparency by the manufacturer.

This concept is particularly crucial in the context of sustainable design, construction, and consumption, as it sheds light on the often substantial environmental impact that occurs before a product even starts functioning.

Here are some examples of embodied carbon within the construction and real estate industry:

  1. Concrete: The production of cement, a key ingredient in concrete, involves high-temperature processes that release significant CO2. The transportation of concrete to a construction site also contributes to its embodied carbon.
  2. Steel: The manufacturing of steel involves the extraction of iron ore, which emits CO2. Additionally, the energy-intensive processes used to convert iron ore into steel release further emissions.
  3. Roads and Bridges: The construction involves materials like asphalt, concrete, and steel, each with its own embodied carbon due to production and transportation.

Operational Carbon

Operational carbon, often referred to as in-use carbon, pertains to the carbon emissions generated during the operational phase of a product, structure, or building. It includes the energy consumed for heating, cooling, lighting, appliances, and other activities associated with the normal use of the asset. Operational carbon is ongoing and accumulates over the lifespan of the asset. Minimizing operational carbon is essential for achieving energy efficiency and reducing the overall carbon footprint of a project.

  1. Residential Buildings: The energy used for heating, cooling, lighting, and running appliances in homes contributes to operational carbon emissions. These emissions vary based on factors such as the building’s insulation, HVAC systems, and energy-efficient appliances.
  2. Commercial Buildings: Office buildings, malls, and other commercial structures require energy for lighting, heating, cooling, ventilation, and electronic equipment. Operational carbon emissions in these settings can be reduced through energy-efficient designs and technologies.
  3. Transportation: Vehicles, whether personal cars or commercial fleets emit operational carbon through the burning of fossil fuels like gasoline or diesel during operation. This includes commuting, business travel, and transportation of goods.

RICS Whole Life Carbon Assessment

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) is a professional organization that encompasses various disciplines within the land, property, and construction sectors. RICS has developed a methodology and framework to comprehensively evaluate and quantify the WLC of a construction project.

The assessment process involves collecting data on various aspects of the project, such as materials used, construction methods, energy consumption, and end-of-life considerations. This data is then used to calculate and analyze the project’s carbon footprint across its entire lifecycle. By considering the complete range of activities, the RICS whole life carbon assessment enables stakeholders to identify opportunities for carbon reduction and make environmentally conscious choices.

How can Whole Life Carbon Assessment help?

The most compelling aspect of whole-life carbon assessment is its ability to uncover hidden carbon reduction opportunities.

The microscopic analysis of each lifecycle stage reveals hitherto unnoticed opportunities for optimization. Even seemingly trivial modifications can culminate in substantial reductions across the lifecycle. It is possible to profoundly reduce a product or building’s carbon footprint by promoting energy-efficient appliances, embracing renewable energy sources, and implementing innovative recycling methodologies.

Let’s look at the benefits of assessing RICS Whole Life Carbon :

Informed Decision-Making

Whole-life carbon assessment equips stakeholders with a comprehensive view of a product’s or building’s environmental impact. This empowers them to make well-informed decisions that prioritize sustainability and minimize carbon emissions.


Hidden Opportunity Discovery

Scrutinizing every phase of a product’s lifecycle, WLC helps identify areas where minor changes can lead to substantial environmental benefits, fostering innovative solutions for sustainability.


Guidance for Innovation

Insights from whole-life carbon assessments can help industries, architects, engineers, and designers drive innovation.  It can help develop materials, design energy-efficient structures, or implement circular economy principles to reduce embodied carbon.


Policy Formulation

Governments and regulatory bodies can leverage WLC assessment to formulate policies that incentivize sustainable practices. By setting standards and providing incentives for low-carbon design, construction, and manufacturing, they contribute to a greener future.

In essence, whole-life carbon assessment brings transparency to the intricate relationship between human activities and the environment. By guiding stakeholders towards environmentally responsible decisions, it contributes to a more sustainable future, where industries, individuals, and governments collectively work to reduce carbon emissions and create a healthier planet for generations to come.


What does whole life carbon mean?

Whole life carbon refers to the total carbon emissions associated with a product, structure, or building over its entire lifespan, including raw material extraction, manufacturing, transportation, use, maintenance, and eventual disposal. Whole life carbon considers all carbon emissions associated with a project, from its creation to its end, including production, use, and disposal.


What are the benefits of the whole-life carbon assessment?

Whole-life carbon assessment helps us understand a project’s complete environmental impact, guiding us to make sustainable decisions and reduce carbon emissions.


What is embodied carbon?

Embodied carbon refers to the total carbon emissions produced during the production, transportation, and construction of materials used in a project.


What are examples of embodied carbon?

Examples of embodied carbon include emissions from manufacturing steel, cement, or other building materials.


What is operational carbon?

Operational carbon refers to the carbon emissions produced during the day-to-day operation of a building or project.


What are examples of operational carbon?

Examples of operational carbon include energy consumption for heating, cooling, lighting, and running equipment.


What are the stages of the carbon lifecycle?

The carbon lifecycle stages include production, construction, operation, and end-of-life disposal, encompassing the entire lifespan of a project.


What does whole life carbon include?

Whole-life carbon includes both embodied carbon (from production) and operational carbon (from usage), offering a holistic view of a project’s environmental impact.

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