Carbon Footprint of Building Materials (Green Building Calculator)

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

Carbon Offsets Credits | November 8, 2023

Woman bending over to look at a green building calculator wonders what is the Carbon Footprint of Building Materials and the Carbon Footprint of Concrete Per m3, and are there any Carbon Neutral Building Materials?

The construction industry is responsible for a large percentage of total global emissions, especially from the carbon footprint of building materials.

But, just how can many renewable resources (like wood) generate emissions?

The answer is found in the processing and use…embodied and operational emissions.

Use this green building calculator to figure up the emissions of any project now:

Decarbonization goals estimate that the sector should consider the carbon footprint of building materials and reduce its emission levels by at least 50% before 2030 to achieve the Paris Agreement targets.8

Ecological Footprint Building Materials: Carbon Emissions of Building Materials

All buildings and facilities have carbon emissions from GHG from construction materials and daily operations. Whether it is an existing or a new/ residential or commercial building, a building’s carbon footprint is measured usually by the square footage and other factors.

By far the biggest carbon footprints are found in colocation or data centers. These massive facilities utilize massive amounts of energy and water to operate, in addition to the embodied emissions of the building materials.

Some industries have developed ways to reduce buildings’ energy usage, but the elusive aspect is embodied energy from construction materials.

The embodied carbon makes up about 11 percent of worldwide GHG emissions, a staggering value that needs immediate addressing.

Carbon Neutral Building Materials: Zero Carbon Materials

Construction materials account for about 70% of a building’s carbon footprint, and the only remedy is to use low-carbon alternatives.

For construction projects, a great example is a carbon-neutral concrete, steel, and wood.

Wide shot of a construction jobsite with concrete foundation and iron beams forming the frame of the building.

You can find these unique materials in countries like Denmark and Sweden, which produce zero-carbon “bio rock” or “sea concrete” that grows underwater using electric currents.

Australia also has carbon-neutral aluminum and steel, which are excellent low-carbon options.

Carbon Footprint: Construction Industries’ Carbon Emissions

The global construction industry is responsible for a massive percentage of all emissions; shockingly, buildings equivalent to Paris are erected weekly.

This level comprises the carbon from operations, the embodied CO2 from the construction materials, and the level emitted from the material manufacture.

Some reports indicated that the carbon footprint from 6 buildings was 1,800 kg of CO2e per m2, with only six materials causing 70% of the embodied emissions. Surprisingly, concrete accounted for about 80% of all of them.

Definition of Embodied Carbon of Materials

The embodied carbon of construction materials comes from the consumption of the energy used during extraction, refining, processing, transportation, and fabrication.

It is often a quantity from the cradle to the factory, then the site, and finally to the grave.3

Generally, embodied carbon is how much CO2 emissions result from producing a material. It entails carbon and other greenhouse gasses, plus the emissions from all activities before the materials’ consumption.

Embodied Carbon of Construction Materials: List of Embodied Carbon Footprint of Building Materials

The following table shows the accepted carbon footprint of building materials that are common.

MaterialEmbodied CO2/ kg
Concrete0.159
Bricks0.24
Marble0.116
Stainless steel6.15
Timber0.72
Sawn hardwood0.86
Glass wool1.35
Clay tile0.45
Aluminum8.24
MDF0.72
Plywood1.07
Glass0.85
Terrazzo tile0.12
Ceramic tiles0.72
Wallpaper1.93
Iron1.91
Lead1.57
copper2.60
PVC pipe24.40

How To Estimate Building Carbon Footprint

The first step in determining a building’s carbon footprint is identifying the measurement method from multiple greenhouse gas reporting standards like ISO 14064.9

Alternatively, you can go for the more straightforward route where you calculate the building’s energy usage, which accounts for most of the carbon footprint.

Bar graph that shows the carbon footprint of building materials.

If dealing with a massive construction whose carbon footprint can be difficult to quantify, you can always seek help from private consultants, NGOs, and EPA. There are also various free software options online.

Carbon Footprint of Building Materials in the Construction Industry: Carbon Emissions Percentage of Various Materials

The following table shows the approximate carbon emission percentage of various building materials.

Building MaterialCarbon Emission Percentage
Cement30.3
Ceramic20.3
Steel18.7
Lime7.9
Mortar6.9
Gravel2.9
Aluminum2.3
Prefabricated concrete2.0
Additives1.5
Wood1.1
PVC1.0
Others5.0

Estimation of the Carbon Footprint of Steel

According to the IEA, the direct carbon emissions from steel production are around 1.4 tons of CO2e per ton, but the level may be higher, reaching 1.85 tons. The carbon footprint of steel is notably higher in countries like China due to the production method.

Pie chart that shows the carbon emissions percentage of building materials.

China is one of the largest steel manufacturers, and the ratio can rise to three CO2 tons per ton.

They produce the material in furnace ovens where the iron ore heats to 1500 degrees and then blasts oxygen into the liquefied iron to eliminate impurities.

Carbon Footprint of Materials Database: Embodied Carbon Database

The Bath University Inventory of Carbon and Energy is one of the best platforms to find data on the embodied carbon footprint of building materials since it provides all the information, which is free to download.

More than 30,000 professionals worldwide have downloaded content from the site, and it is on several written journals and reports.

It contains information about more than 200 building materials summarized into more than 30 categories, including cement, glass, bricks, plastics, metals, and several other types.

What Contributes to the Carbon Footprint of a Building?

Various factors determine a building’s carbon footprint, but most people are only aware of the energy consumption, which they reduce by switching to renewable alternatives.

The less obvious contributors to a building’s CF include the emissions from the transportation of materials to the construction site and their embodied carbon.5 Experts estimate that embodied carbon accounts for a significant percentage of GHG emissions.

Steel, concrete, and aluminum are the worst offenders here since their emissions are almost equal to the GHG from the building sector operations.

How Rise of Various Economies Influence CO2 Emissions By Material?

China is one of the leading countries in matters of carbon emissions from material production.

As a country’s economy rises, so does the demand for more commercial and residential buildings, explaining the increased material production.

Pie chart that shows China's carbon emissions from cement production.
From the chart above, cement production, vital in the building sector, is responsible for massive carbon emissions in China’s industries.

How Organizations Promote Sustainable Carbon Footprint in Construction Industry?

Bodies like the UN target the construction industry since it accounts for a large percentage of carbon emissions. Managing the sector is critical in helping achieve net zero emissions before 2050 as part of the Paris Agreement.10

Humanity depends on built environments, and everyone either sleeps, works, or eats in buildings; therefore, it is an excellent place to start when advocating for climate justice.7 Besides the NGOs, states have laid down regulations for residents to follow in their construction projects.

Examples of the Highest and Lowest Carbon Footprint Building Materials

Concrete is responsible for the most carbon footprint of building materials due to its frequent usage, weight, and energy required for manufacture. However, mixing with fly ash is an effective way to reduce embodied carbon.

Besides concrete, plastic and aluminum are heavy emitters, although contractors do not use them as frequently. On the other end, wood and biomaterials have the lowest carbon footprint.

Manufacturers are also devising greener alternatives like low-carbon MDF panels that need less water and energy to produce. Salvaging and recycling materials are also brilliant strategies to help reduce embodied carbon in materials.2

Embodied Carbon of Steel Vs. Concrete: Which Is Greener?

Concrete is one of the most widely used construction materials, given that it is cheap and durable, and that it can be used an a variety of applications.

Unfortunately, the production of cement accounts for approximately 8 percent of the worldwide CO2.

On the other hand, steel is an environmentally-friendly alternative with lower embodied carbon, unlike concrete.

It emits about 18.5 tons per cubic meter, and although it is not as green as wood.

Steel is often used in combination with concrete as reinforcement.

How To Calculate Carbon Footprint of a Building (How Carbon Footprint of Building Materials Calculators Work)

A building’s carbon footprint measures the embodied carbon footprint of construction materials, energy usage, and daily activities.

These numbers can be bulky and complicated when manually calculating them, but automated calculators online can help.

Front photo of a big house while being constructed.

(Image: paulbr7516)

Various versions have unique designs and use the data from the building’s design that you can import from tools like Excel and Revit.

After the input, the system will generate reports from the data, and some calculators further help you identify the eco-friendliest carbon reduction methods to implement.

If you find an effective calculator, it will be easier to quantify your green building architecture construction emissions, know the ideal materials to use, and how to minimize pollution from the project.

How To Reduce Carbon Emissions From Buildings: Effective Ways To Reduce The Carbon Footprint of Building Materials

Stakeholders first need to have crucial conversations before undertaking any construction projects. Clients should understand buildings’ environmental impact and the value of critical material choices. Similarly, designers and contractors can join in developing alternative eco-friendly building projects.

The implementation process is the most vital, where you consider aspects like the building’s site and public transportation proximity. The equipment and material choices also play a significant role in determining the project’s carbon footprint.

Instead of heavy emitters like concrete, contractors can switch to low-carbon options like timber and use eco-friendly finishes that are locally produced. Additionally, the building can use renewable, efficient, and affordable energy sources.

Carbon Footprint: Construction Materials Impact on the Environment

Most common building materials seriously impact the environment because most humans live, eat, or work in them. It explains why there is a high demand for governments and contractors to build more to accommodate the ever-growing population.

A backhoe digging stones and gravel in different sizes to be used as raw material for construction.

(Image: monicore17)

These materials need processing from their raw states, which requires a lot of energy. Transporting them after manufacture before reaching the consumer also emits greenhouse gasses besides waste production.

These factors contribute to the embodied carbon footprint of building materials, and after construction, you have to account for its emissions, like energy usage. Therefore, building materials need a lot of energy for creation and maintenance.

Is Achieving Zero Embodied Carbon in Buildings Possible?

NGOs and various stakeholders are relentlessly looking for ways to reduce the carbon footprint from all the major sectors, like advocating for carbon offsets credits. Research is also ongoing to find the most effective technologies in the industry to minimize the carbon footprint.

According to their estimates, the companies can reach carbon neutrality by adopting advanced tech and using renewable energies. If the right policies are implemented, industry carbon emissions will significantly reduce with time.

It may be a while before the industry declares zero carbon or achieves the country’s carbon goals, but every step counts. It starts from the design stages to picking materials, and soon most new buildings will be green.

Carbon Emissions: Commercial Buildings and Their Contribution to Climate Change

Buildings generate almost 40% of the global greenhouse gasses if you include other related aspects like energy, water use, and waste.6 Commercial and residential buildings are heavy emitters, given the number of activities that take place there every day.

Aerial photo of tall buildings and skyscrapers.

(Image: Pexels18)

Employees travel daily to work and use a lot of energy for their tasks, contributing to the total emissions. Still, it doesn’t include the pollution from the construction work while the building was erected.

Therefore, there is a dire need to develop green building methods for any project, starting with material choices and using less energy for maintenance.

Companies are also focusing on obtaining green building construction credits as an effective way to save the planet. It is a gradual process but a brilliant idea to help achieve climate goals.

CO2 Emissions from Manufacturing Industries and Global Material Production

The manufacturing industry outdoes other sectors in terms of carbon emissions across various spectrums. For instance, the construction industry for iron and steel manufacture generates 7.2% of energy-related emissions, while the chemical and food sectors account for 3.6 and 1%, respectively.

Angled shot of iron beams at a home construction site.

The manufacturing industries use energy-hungry equipment and emit many gasses into the atmosphere, hence the high emission levels. On the other hand, residential and commercial buildings generate 10.9 and 6.6% energy usage worldwide.

Evaluation of Carbon Emissions By Country

China, the US, India, the EU, Russia, and Japan were the highest CO2 emitters in the world in 2014, according to the chart below.

These GHG were from the burning of fossil fuels and cement manufacturing.

Pie chart that shows the 2014 global co2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and some industrial processes.

Given their higher manufacturing power, more advanced countries have higher carbon emissions per capita than third-world states.13 Their industries, therefore, generate more energy leading to a high pollution rate.

How Companies Can Shrink Carbon Footprint in Construction Industry?

Effective ways for construction companies to check their carbon footprints are by carefully selecting low-carbon building materials and using energy-efficient equipment.

Electric machinery is more sustainable than fuel-powered ones and significantly reduces the construction’s energy usage. Firms can also turn to renewable energy sources for building maintenance.

Ways To Reduce CO2 Emissions From Buildings

Buildings generate GHG from the embodied carbon in the construction materials during construction and after the occupants enter and use the facility. Therefore, reducing emissions must focus on each of these stages.

For instance, using low-carbon products for construction and implementing energy-efficient methods can reduce the project’s total emissions.

Similarly, implementing cleaner energy, like renewable sources, can maintain energy-related emissions.

Carbon offsets can also be used, when done with tree planting programs. Growing trees that will remain protected can sequester the emissions generated by building materials.

Carbon Emissions By Sector: How Much Emissions Come From Each Sector?

Based on findings from the 2020 study, transportation, industries, and electric power are the top sectors causing global emissions, followed by commercial and residential buildings and agriculture.

How Can Companies Adopt Low-Carbon Materials and Green Construction Methods?

The United States government offers companies tax incentives to adopt sustainable practices. For instance, using renewable energies makes you eligible for aid, and some financiers offer green companies a percentage back from initial investments.

Pie chart that shows the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector in 2020

Companies can also seek loans for sustainable equipment purchases, and it is encouraging that customers are more attracted to eco-conscious businesses. Besides, lowering the carbon footprint often means increased profits and more clients.

Additionally, the government heavily invests in research to help reduce the carbon footprint of buildings, and soon, methods will be available to combat their environmental impact.15

Buildings Carbon Emissions: Reduction Strategies

Here are some strategies contractors can employ to reduce carbon emissions;

  1. Instead of undertaking new projects, you can refurbish or repurpose existing buildings.
  2. Contractors can consider building less, ensuring that the goal is to meet the community’s needs.
  3. You can reuse materials or switch to low-carbon options.
  4. Building efficiently helps you maximize material use.
  5. You can ensure that the project emits low waste by recycling materials and improving construction methods.4

What Percentage of Carbon Emissions Come From Buildings?

The built environment, encompassing all constructions, generates almost 50% of global carbon emissions. Out of this, building operations account for 27% yearly, while the embodied carbon, which comprises building materials and the construction process, is responsible for another 20% annually.1

Carbon Emission of Global Construction Sector: Building Sector CO2 Emissions

The carbon emissions from the construction sector increase with the rise in building projects; for instance, they reached a record high in 2019 at 9.95 GtCO2 when contractors undertook more building projects. However, the rate subsided in 2020 when the number of projects plummeted following the pandemic.

Leveraging Built Environment Carbon Emissions

In 2040, two-thirds of the buildings today will still exist, and they will keep generating more carbon unless remedies are in place. Without building decarbonization, it will be impossible to achieve the Agreement targets.

The first zero-carbon step is to insist on energy efficiency. Occupants consume a lot of energy with their household and office equipment, and this rate will only be minimal if there is a switch to renewable energy.

The building and construction industry is one of the heaviest carbon emitters, responsible for about 11% of the total GHG worldwide. Whether residential or commercial, the embodied carbon from the materials and the pollution from the entire process needs immediate attention.

Thankfully, NGOs, private consultants, and online carbon footprint calculators for green building can help you determine your design or construction’s emissions and suggest how to lower the carbon footprint of building materials.

Frequently Asked Questions About Carbon Footprint of Building Materials

What Are the Lowest Carbon Footprint of Building Materials? (Low-Carbon Materials Examples)

You can find low-carbon materials for your project by sourcing options with less embodied carbon from their production, processing, and transportation. An excellent alternative includes low-carbon bricks that use fly ash (a byproduct of coal processing).

Alternatively, you can use green concrete, a product of recycled processes, green tiles, which are made of recycled glass, or use recycled metals.

What Is the Embodied Energy of Construction Materials?

Embodied energy from construction materials estimates the total power that went into their mining, processing, and transportation until they reached the final user. It is how much energy it takes to create the materials that constitute a building.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Aluminum?

Aluminum is one of the materials with the highest carbon footprint and is widely used due to its low maintenance and strength. It generates about 18,000 kg of embodied CO2 per cubic meter.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Concrete per M3? What Is the Embodied Carbon of Concrete?

Concrete is a standard construction material for various building stages, but its 635 kg embodied carbon per cubic meter makes it one of the most harmful options to use in projects. Its production is not energy efficient, hence the need for low-carbon concrete alternatives and mixtures.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Stainless Steel?

Steel produces about 51 million tons of emissions worldwide yearly and averages about 0.49 tons of CO2 per produced ton. However, it is greener than aluminum and concrete and should be the better alternative because it is also durable.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Steel Per Kg?

50% of the construction industry requires steel because it is flexible, affordable, and highly durable. It is responsible for approximately 12 090 kg of carbon per cubic meter or 1.8- 3.0 tons of emissions per tonnes of steel produced.

What Are the CO2 Emissions Per Kg of Plastic?

Plastic is one of the worst offenders in carbon emissions, and construction companies would rather avoid it. You emit about 1.7 -6kg CO2e for each kilogram you use, depending on several factors.

How Much CO2 Emissions per Kg of Polypropylene?

The process of manufacturing polypropylene generates massive amounts of carbon, and it helps to find more sustainable materials. It emits an average of 1.95 kg CO2e per kilogram of polypropylene.

What Is the Embodied Carbon of Timber?

Timber is the best environmentally-friendly building material, given that trees lock carbon from the atmosphere and serve as purifiers. Each dry ton you produce from timber accounts for about 1.8 tons of CO2 absorbed from the air. On average, timber can emit less than 100 kg of embodied CO2 per cubic meter.

Read More About Carbon Footprint of Building Materials


References

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2Bushey, M. (2021, July 1). Embodied Carbon in Building Materials: The Next Challenge for Vermont’s Net Zero Goals? AIA Vermont. Retrieved November 1, 2022, from <https://www.aiavt.org/news-events/news-details/post/embodied-carbon-in-building-materials-the-next-challenge-for-vermonts-net-zero-goals>

3Circular Ecology. (2022). Embodied Carbon – The ICE Database. Circular Ecology. Retrieved November 1, 2022, from <https://circularecology.com/embodied-carbon-footprint-database.html>

4Fairs, M. (2021, July 13). How can we reduce the construction industry’s carbon footprint? World Economic Forum. Retrieved November 1, 2022, from <https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/07/construction-industry-doesn-t-know-where-it-stands-when-it-comes-to-carbon-emissions/>

5HMC architects. (2020, January 24). What is the Carbon Footprint of a Building? HMC architects. Retrieved November 1, 2022, from <https://hmcarchitects.com/news/what-is-the-carbon-footprint-of-a-building-2019-01-24/>

6Hyunh, C. (2021, March 1). How green buildings can help fight climate change. US Green Building Council. Retrieved November 1, 2022, from <https://www.usgbc.org/articles/how-green-buildings-can-help-fight-climate-change>

7Morrison, R. (2022, April 19). What Will It Take for the Construction Industry to Reduce Carbon Emissions? Fieldwire. Retrieved November 1, 2022, from <https://www.fieldwire.com/blog/reducing-carbon-emissions-in-construction/>

8Garthwaite, J. (2021, April 16). The science behind decarbonization. Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. Retrieved November 30, 2022, from <https://earth.stanford.edu/news/science-behind-decarbonization>

9Wintergreen, J., & Delaney, T. (2022). ISO 14064 International Standard for GHG Emissions Inventories and Verification. EPA. Retrieved November 30, 2022, from <https://www3.epa.gov/ttnchie1/conference/ei16/session13/wintergreen.pdf>

10Afzal, M. (2022). The Paris Agreement and its future. Brookings Institution. Retrieved November 30, 2022, from <https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-paris-agreement-and-its-future/>

11NCBI. (2021, August 6). China’s carbon emissions structure and reduction potential on the supply-side and demand-side of energy: Under the background of four influencing factors. NCBI. Retrieved November 30, 2022, from <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8345844/>

12US EPA. (2022, February 25). Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data | US EPA. EPA. Retrieved November 30, 2022, from <https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-emissions-data>

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15US Department of Energy. (2022, June 13). DOE Announces $39 Million for Research and Development to Turn Buildings into Carbon Storage Structures. Department of Energy. Retrieved November 30, 2022, from <https://www.energy.gov/articles/doe-announces-39-million-research-and-development-turn-buildings-carbon-storage-structures>

16Photo by paulbr75. Pixabay. Retrieved from <https://pixabay.com/photos/new-home-construction-industry-4083239/>

17Photo by monicore. Pixabay. Retrieved from <https://pixabay.com/photos/digger-rocks-construction-industry-1453430/>

18Photo by Pexels. Pixabay. Retrieved from <https://pixabay.com/photos/architecture-chicago-buildings-1869211/>