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Sustainability Glossary: Carbon Accounting

As part of the Metropolis Perspective: Sustainability special issue, we asked experts to provide refreshed definitions of key sustainability concepts.

Sustainability Glossary Carbon Accounting
Courtesy Lan Truong

As the concept of sustainability trends toward regenerative design, how we prioritize sustainable decisions must evolve too. Today’s concerns about material transparency and occupant well-being are worthy causes, no doubt. But we must also consider the broader impact on humanity.

Here is a question to ponder: How is your firm affecting climate change? Carbon—both operational and embodied—is the challenge of our time. This is true especially within the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) communities, because the built environment accounts for almost half of the carbon emissions in the United States. While the public is more aware of operational carbon, an understanding of embodied carbon in building products is emerging, and the value of that cannot be overstated. When alternative products deliver carbon reduction compared with traditional equivalents, they should be prioritized and incorporated as an obvious choice for projects.

The goal of having building products achieve a 50 percent reduction in embodied carbon by 2030 is an uphill battle—and an impossibility unless the AEC communities take immediate action to understand and embrace embodied carbon comparisons of building products as a mandatory filter for product selection.

A decade ago, USG released a Type X gypsum panel that weighed 20 percent less than competing products. Using less gypsum while retaining performance, it delivered core optimization, raw material efficiency, and better handling. Since then, we’ve pursued even more sustainability through the 2030 Challenge for Products, through lowered embodied carbon of USG products, and through the release of Sheetrock brand EcoSmart—which saves billions of gallons of water annually and prevents the emission of billions of pounds of carbon.

Professionals need to write and hold specifications for structural products with lower embodied carbon. These unseen elements contribute large amounts of carbon emissions annually: This year alone, 25 billion square feet of gypsum wallboard will be shipped in North America. By taking these actions, we will spur innovation and transformation—momentum that has even more of an impact when considered at scale.

RICHARD MURLIN is the director of strategic collaboration for USG, a sponsor of Metropolis Perspective: Sustainability, the special issue where this article originally appeared.

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