Today, design and construction professionals, building engineers, building owners, and managers evaluate boilers, HVAC, and other critical mechanical systems on more than just performance. With the growing popularity of green building programs, like Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED); Green Globes; green procurement programs; and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reporting, there is increasing pressure for manufacturers of all types to provide information on the total environmental impact of their products and not just from the operational perspective. Building engineers and specifiers are also starting to make product choices based on more than just operational performance.

While initial tactics to minimize carbon footprints were focused almost exclusively on reducing operational carbon, today, building professionals, engineers, specifiers, owners, and operators are evaluating and selecting products, in part, based on their embodied carbon. So, what exactly is embodied (sometimes also referred to as embedded) carbon and how can manufacturers and purchasers of boilers and other mechanical equipment access that information? 


Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions

Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions all contribute to the carbon footprint of a building, company, or organization. Scope 1 emissions are generated directly from owned or controlled resources. This would include, for example, emissions generated at a manufacturing facility or commercial building. Scope 2 emissions include all indirect emissions from the purchase of electricity. For example, when coal is burned to produce energy, the carbon emissions calculation is higher than when certified green energy, such as solar, is used. Scope 3 emissions include all other indirect emissions generated when a product is made, packaged, transported, used, and disposed of. So, the Scope 1 emissions it takes to make a boiler end up being someone else’s Scope 3 emissions. 

Boilers contribute to all three types of emissions, but, until recently, the embodied carbon component was not taken into consideration. Gaining recent attention, embodied carbon is expected to make up 49% of carbon emissions from global new construction from 2020-2050, according to Architecture 2030. For this reason, embodied carbon has come into focus for green building professionals, environmentally minded investors, sustainability professionals, and anyone looking to slow climate change. When it comes to boilers, this adds to the analysis and selection criteria.


Evaluating embodied carbon

Stakeholders across the board have taken action to effectively measure carbon emissions, select products with low embodied carbon, and operationalize activities that minimize scope 3 carbon emissions. But, how and where is this information available?

An environmental product declaration (EPD) is an internationally accepted and published report that discloses how a product impacts the environment throughout its life cycle. EPDs are informational resources that help architects, designers, building engineers, specifiers, and other purchasers better understand a product’s sustainable qualities and environmental impacts.

EPDs are developed according to product category rules (PCRs), which outline product-specific calculation requirements and methodologies that ensure consistent data collection and analysis across a particular category of products. A product’s life cycle assessment is then filtered through the PCR to finalize the information available in the EPDs. In this way, EPDs allow manufacturers to maintain confidentiality of their trade secrets while also potentially offering an effective comparison of similar products. 

For boiler manufacturers, EPDs represent an excellent way to verify, document, and communicate their products’ environmental impact and, in particular, their embodied carbon. EPDs provide buyers interested in green products with the information they need to select items that contribute minimally to the building’s carbon footprint. From the manufacturer’s standpoint, the EPD evaluation process can reveal opportunities for improvement to their overall sustainability efforts through an understanding of their supply chain, manufacturing, and delivery processes and procedures. EPDs can also open their products to new green markets that require EPDs for purchase consideration. 


Growing demand for transparency

In the pursuit of reduced carbon emissions in buildings, new tactics, best practices, and guidelines continue to emerge. Led by everything from green purchasing guidelines to green building programs and even local legislation, stakeholders will find their role in addressing embodied carbon.  

As of Jan. 1, 2019, the Buy Clean California Act requires EPDs for certain material types. In January 2021, additions to the act will establish limits on global warming potential (GWP) for four types of materials. The first legislation in the U.S. that requires the use of EPDs is expected to set the standard for adoption of similar standards across other states in the coming years. 

LEED v4.1 encourages the use of products and materials for which life cycle information is available and reflects environmentally preferable impacts. Under the Materials and Resources section of the program, participants are required to use at least 20 different permanently installed products that have EPDs. 

In early 2020, many global engineering firms also started to lay out their focus on more than just operational carbon. The Sustainable Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing (MEP) Leaders Group asked for more products to have EPDs, and the U.K. Building Services engineers included life cycle costing and whole-life carbon modeling to reduce the amount of embodied carbon in a public declaration. 

The financial markets have also started to take note. Many global financial firms now rely on the Carbon Disclosure Project or Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) evaluations to understand both public and private firms’ carbon impacts. SASB alone has more than $48 trillion in assets under management investor support, and BlackRock has fully inserted environmental, social, and corporate governance into its investing strategy, even going so far as to repudiate firms that don’t focus on their climate impacts. 

What do all these changes and programs mean for stakeholders? Boiler manufacturers can invest in EPDs for their products to provide buyers with the critical information needed to select products that contribute minimally to their carbon footprint. To track their progress over time, they can also invest in optimized EPDs, which enable comparison of newer and older versions of a product based on changes made. 

Building engineers and specifiers who are working on green building projects or are simply committed to a reduced carbon footprint can leverage available EPDs to evaluate and select products with low embodied carbon. Tools like the Embodied Carbon Calculator for Construction (EC3) provide a database of verified EPDs as well as the capability to calculate a building’s embodied carbon impacts based on the selection of particular products and materials. This is extremely helpful for collecting a comprehensive view and comparing products.

With legislation, purchasing programs, and other guidelines coming into play, the industry as a whole is moving in the right direction. Increasingly, practical tools like EC3 and EPDs will continue to gain traction and offer simple, effective ways to measure, calculate, and compare embodied carbon. 


Getting started today

As stakeholders take aggressive action to slow climate change, some key steps offer a great way to advance further down the path of increased transparency and sustainability.

  • Digitize your data — For stakeholders across the board, reducing climate change begins with access to data. Access to accurate and complete data is required to understand true carbon impact across your organization. Without digitized data, true visibility is impossible. Many carbon-reporting software tools are available to help you do this. These tools enable streamlined consolidation, calculation, and reporting of carbon data across disparate operations, locations, and geographies. 
  • Pursue supply chain transparency — According to a report from CDP, supply chains can be responsible for up to four times the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of a company’s direct operations. True carbon transparency requires visibility through the supply chain. For companies that have not established policies, scorecards, audits, or other procedures within their supply chains, the time is now to begin setting up these processes to achieve better visibility. 
  • Understand your options going forward — There are multiple global EPD program operators that can help manufacturers understand where they are currently on their journey and what their next steps are. If you are in procurement, you can also ask program operators what MEP products they have EPDs on.  

Net-zero carbon is not a single destination but a journey that involves continuous improvement and a commitment to raising the bar when it comes to sustainability performance. As boiler manufacturers and building engineers pursue lower embodied carbon to reduce GHG emissions in buildings, they will help advance the sustainability of the built environment and the overall long-term viability of the planet. 

Demand for greater corporate responsibility and disclosure from the investors, business customers and consumers, regulators, and other stakeholders is growing. At the same time, the requirement for deeper content about companies’ policies and performance has grown, requiring companies to reach into their supply chains for more data and using that information to inform procurement decisions.