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Lighting’s Dark Secret: Embodied Carbon in the LED Industry

Energy-efficient LEDs have a fat carbon footprint. The Lighting industry is beginning to grapple with the amount of embodied carbon in its materials.

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The carbon-heavy steps in manufacturing LEDs more than double their embodied-carbon foot-print compared with that of conventional lighting. That’s about 466,300 tons of indirect CO2 for LEDs, versus roughly 197,500 tons for conventional lighting, per quadrillion lumen-hours. Courtesy Istock.com/Somchaisom, Istock.com/M_Pavlov

One evening last July, concert pianist Stephen Hough sat down before an audience of 150 people in the Olivier Music Barn at Tippet Rise Art Center in Montana. There was no spotlight, just him and a Steinway by a huge picture window overlooking the Beartooth Mountains. Apart from a few low-power ambient fixtures, it was mostly dusk-light that eased the room into the mood for Hough’s selection of brooding pieces by Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt.

“He played Chopin’s funeral march, Sonata No. 2,” recalls Tippet Rise Art Center codirector Pete Hinmon, who was there that night. “It was mysterious, heavy-hitting music. As the program progressed, the skies were getting darker. We heard thunder. The skies lit up the space with lightning. It was this amazing collision of arts and nature. I couldn’t have designed that,” he adds.

But in a way, Arup did design it. The firm’s lighting teams spent months studying that particular rolling-hill landscape (in collaboration with a team of engineers and audio pros), trying to come up with a just-right site for the music barn, which would capitalize on natural light, keep the structure’s carbon footprint as small as possible, and still deliver a highly dramatic performance space. They did install some LEDs in the barn, with aluminum fixtures that can be recycled if they’re ever replaced. But they also took deliberate steps to make use of illumination from the setting sun whenever possible, even if that meant limiting concerts to certain hours and adjusting the acoustics to compensate for the bouncy effects of more windows. The lighting designers proposed a change in theater expectations and human behavior in order to achieve a sustainability goal.

To some, Arup’s “use less” lighting strategy may sound extreme, but the point it makes about the state of manufacturing is a reality check: As energy efficient as lighting systems have become from an operational perspective, the greenhouse gas levels emitted in the process of making them remain earth threateningly high. Lighting researchers at Aalto University in Finland estimate that manufacturing LEDs, given the heavy metals and silicone in their electronic parts, releases more than double the amount of carbon dioxide emitted in making conventional lamps and luminaires. Are LEDs operationally efficient when installed? Yes. But are they carbon costly right now? Extremely.

Lighting manufacturers admit that it’s difficult to accurately track all the emissions produced during the extraction of ingredients, manufacturing of parts, and shipping and installation of fixtures— all of which contribute to what’s known as a product’s embodied carbon. One barrier to information is that many factories in southern China, where a majority of lighting components are made, do not release carbon emissions data. “I don’t know if that will change in China unless there’s a direct economic advantage to doing it,” says Robert Sonneman, founder and chief creative officer of manufacturer SONNEMAN – A Way of Light. But he says he’s becoming increasingly sensitive to the embodied-carbon issue and is trying to address it any way he can. “We’re absolutely looking to improve the packing and materials that are used in shipping. They’re a big threat too.”

The need for change is urgent. The amount of carbon the world can afford to emit in the next five to 10 years (without raising the earth’s temperature past a dangerous 1.5 degrees Celsius) is so meager now that it’s going to take a massive reduction effort across industries to slow the warming, the lighting industry included. Concrete manufacturers are experimenting with net-zero-carbon processes and products, and lighting manufacturers may want to follow suit. But so far there is no low-carbon way to keep making tech-heavy lighting strips, downlights, fixtures, controllers, shading systems, and sensors.

“Sustainable growth today is still an oxymoron,” says Govi Rao, a former vice president and general manager for Philips.

Solid-State Lighting Solutions. Rao now heads Carbon Group, an accelerator for cleaner businesses. “The bad news is that people are out for profit, so the primary focus is not going to be zero carbon.” The good news is that the number of professionals who are exploring ways to reduce the embodied carbon of lighting systems, such as Arup’s designers and Rao, is growing. Barbara Rodriguez, a Chile-based researcher who previously worked for the Carbon Leadership Forum at the University of Washington in Seattle, sees the coming decade as one of the most promising design seasons in history. “Most designers still aren’t aware of the impact that materials have,” says Rodriguez. “We need to find ways of doing more with less, and that’s fast becoming a trend. It’s a very exciting time in design.”

Architect Scott James Kyle of Glavé & Holmes Architecture in Richmond, Virginia, says he has found embodied carbon savings by using recycled materials to build lighting fixtures: Nearly every time he finds a way to employ recycled copper, aluminum, or brass, it’s a carbon win, because no new emissions went into making the fixture. His recycled material quest led to a creative local collaboration with Floyd, Virginia, lighting manufacturer Crenshaw, which was willing to fashion custom fixtures for Kyle’s projects.

“What is a light fixture? There’s the light element itself, an LED, and a chip, two to three parts there. You have to have those, no way around it. But the rest of it is really up for grabs. Your diffuser, your filtering element, your reflector, those can all be recycled,” says Kyle. “Architects are now making their own fixtures. Contractors are too. That part seems to be sort of hopeful,” he adds.

When Kyle needs a standard system, he tries to turn to manufacturers who post Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) for lighting system components. EPDs are the closest designers can get right now to an accurate assessment of a product’s lifelong impact on ecosystems, charting not just carbon emissions but chemical composition and information about how the product will eventually decompose. The last 12 months have been very good to designers looking for this information: Two online platforms, mindful MATERIALS and an embodied carbon calculator called EC3, serve as easily searchable EPD compendiums. Is every lighting product on these platforms? No. But enough are there to help designers begin to piece together lower-embodied-carbon components for their systems.

“More and more products are coming out with EPDs, and we’re setting goals for products to reduce their embodied carbon over time,” says Wes Stevens, a director in the LEED department of the U.S. Green Building Council. “We can’t recycle our way out of this problem; we have to reduce consumption. That’s where good design comes in.”

As the Arup lighting team proved at Tippet Rise Art Center, sometimes good design isn’t about choosing the right materials, but about curbing our dependence on them. Not with a shame-on-you message of deprivation, but with a vision for what could happen if people (and their circadian systems) could track natural light cycles a little more instead of flooding our interiors and exteriors at all hours.

Rodriguez points to the Atacama Desert in Chile, home of the clearest night skies on the planet. Scientists and star-hungry tourists travel from all over the world for the chance to look through high-powered telescopes set up there, and restaurants and hotels that serve these pilgrims have agreed to not pollute the night skies with artificial light. They don’t spotlight their signs or facades after a certain time. They keep things dim for the cause, and there’s a sense of camaraderie about it all, says Rodriguez.

“It works because the whole community is very much aware of the impact they’re making, and they’re proud of it. There’s a whole culture making this happen,” Rodriguez says. “We can learn from that.”

You may also enjoy “More Good than Harm: How Humanscale Reduced Carbon Emissions with a Lightbulb

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