News Brief

Net-Zero Embodied Carbon by 2050?

A group of structural engineers has released a plan to eliminate the embodied carbon of concrete, steel, and wood within 30 years.

Source: Structural Engineering Institute
The building industry could achieve net-zero embodied carbon of structural materials by 2050, according to a working group of the Structural Engineering Institute. Through the use of carbon sequestration, this is possible even without purchasing carbon offsets, claims a white paper on the group’s findings.

The plan starts with architectural design, according to the paper, which identifies four “tracks” for carbon reductions and four “paths” that combine differing intensities of each track to achieve net-zero carbon (see chart). The four tracks are:

  • Design—Includes strategies to optimize use of structural materials, such as voided concrete slab systems, braced steel frames instead of moment frames, and advanced wood framing; also encourages building reuse, resilient design, and use of salvaged materials
  • Electricity—Points to continuing grid decarbonization
  • Material production—Includes use of supplemental cementitious materials, reduced fossil fuel use, and carbon-sequestering aggregate in production of concrete; carbon capture and sequestration during steel production; and sustainable forestry practice for wood production
  • Carbon offsets—Involves the purchase of offsets to make up for remaining embodied carbon

Depending on how intensively each of the first three tracks is implemented, varying levels of offsetting will be necessary in order to reach net zero. One path—where carbon sequestration is used—allows for reduction to zero with no offsets needed.

The white paper points to the importance of single-family residential construction as a dominant emitter. “The carbon emissions from residential construction exceed the emissions from commercial construction,” states the report. “Although structural engineers play a limited role in most residential construction projects, this sector must be addressed.”

More on embodied carbon

The Urgency of Embodied Carbon and What You Can Do about It

Structural Engineers Study Embodied Carbon of 600 Buildings

Marin County First to Adopt Low-Carbon Concrete Code

The Exponential Growth of Embodied Carbon Accounting

For more information:

Structural Engineering Institute

Correction: This article was corrected on July 8, 2020. The name of the group behind this work is the Structural Engineering Institute, not the Sustainable Engineering Institute.

Published July 7, 2020

Melton, P. (2020, June 19). Net-Zero Embodied Carbon by 2050?. Retrieved from

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