Blog: Turning the spotlight on embodied carbon

Blog: Turning the spotlight on embodied carbon

  • Posted on February 28 2022

By Tim Bowes, Head of Lighting Application, Whitecroft Lighting Ltd 

The emphasis on embodied carbon in buildings has increased noticeably over recent years, so much so that while I’m visiting Futurebuild 2022 this week, I’m sure I will receive a number of emails from customers asking if we are able to measure the embodied carbon in our luminaires.

Thankfully, Whitecroft Lighting has invested significant time and money in this area, so, yes, we can do that (more on that later), but what’s happened in recent years to push embodied carbon so far up the agenda? And what does it mean for lighting and M&E?

First of all, some context: embodied carbon, or carbon emitted from the whole life of buildings, is an enormous contributor to climate change.

When you factor in everything from the sourcing and manufacturing of building materials and products, through to the construction process itself, and disposal of materials at the end of life, you’re looking at 11% of the total global C02 emitted each year!

 

New legislation

 

Because of this, legislation in the UK is likely on the way, with Duncan Baker MP having already completed the first reading on what he outlined as: ‘A Bill to require the whole-life carbon emissions of buildings to be reported; to set limits on embodied carbon emissions in the construction of buildings; and for connected purposes.’

The Carbon Emissions (Buildings) Bill, receives its second reading on 18th March, and myself, and my colleagues at Whitecroft Lighting are supportive of any legislation that encourages the lighting industry on a journey to greater data transparency.

That said, we’ve also responded to the likes of the CGRi 21 circular solutions, and have been quick to link increased circularity in product design (ensuring, where possible, hardware is reusable), with reducing embodied carbon’s impact on climate change.

Within the lighting industry, it has been interesting to track how changing the way we measure or even recognise carbon has impacted on the evolution of our products and demand.

As I mentioned earlier, five years ago embodied was the poor relation to operational carbon, and most customers (quite rightly), sought the financial and environmental and benefits of LED lighting.

Advances in lighting technology, and to some extent legislation such as Part-L and BREEAM (although Whitecroft’s lighting has always significantly outperformed these somewhat conservative environmental standards), made buildings increasingly more energy and carbon efficient.

However, in some cases the longer-term embodied carbon impact of design choices was perhaps less considered, an area that Whitecroft Lighting and the wider lighting industry is starting to address with increasing emphasis on the repair and upgrade of products and the wider eco-system to enable this shift.

 

An embodied carbon strategy

 

In 2020, Whitecroft Lighting had to take a strategic decision on the long-term direction of the market.

We recognised that embodied carbon, circularity, waste management and the reduction of material consumption would eventually influence the decision making of our customers.

We set about incorporating circular design principles into our product design, focusing on design choices, modularity, innovation and transparency of data to enable choices for the product beyond simply recycling. By going circular we are able to identify long term financial and environmental value by reducing the embodied carbon impact of our products and that of the building.

Perhaps we could afford to wait while our customers tackled the big ticket emitters first? Embodied carbon in lighting would be much harder to calculate than more simplistic materials, particularly when you factor in multiple components, such as circuit boards, that make up our products.

Whitecroft Lighting began working with automated life cycle assessment software specialists, One Click LCA, in 2020 with two main objectives.

Firstly, we needed to provide our customers with transparent data verified by a third party, to support their own building carbon calculations.

Secondly, we sought their expert consultancy to accelerate identifying circular benefits on reducing embodied carbon. 

 

Rethinking the standard flat panel 

 

A good live example of our journey to date, is the comparison between a standard lighting flat panel, many thousands of which are installed in commercial buildings and spaces across the UK, and Whitecroft Lighting’s Cascade Flex Vitality.

A flat panel contains a significant amount of plastic, which when coupled with design choices, will likely mean it will have to be disposed of and replaced at least once during the building’s lifetime, increasing the embodied carbon impact.

All the elements of the circular design of Cascade Flex Vitality means less material ended up in landfill, and could extend the life of most components over a much longer period of time.

For example, plastic was reduced by 67% (the equivalent of 68 plastic bottles), and the product made more reusable with a fully reusable central cartridge which can be refurbished and reused multiple times.

Using CIBSE’s TM65, we calculated over a 40-year life span, the Cascade Flex Vitality delivers a 46% embodied carbon reduction when compared to a standard 600x600 recessed flat panel.

Working with OneClick LCA has been a commitment both in time and money, but we’re confident it will prove a valuable investment over the long term, helping our customers to make more informed decisions, and crucially, they’ve helped us to create our first Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs).

So while I applaud Duncan Barber MP for highlighting the massive challenge of embodied carbon, my message for M&E is don’t wait for legislation – your customers are already demanding this change long before any new laws hit the books.

 

I’m Tim Bowes the Head of Lighting Application at Whitecroft Lighting. I currently lead the development of Whitecroft Lighting’s Cradle to Cradle Certified product range, including the delivery of our first third party verified EPDs.

I’m attending Futurebuild 2022 with my Whitecroft Lighting colleagues (540 World, stand E40) and OneClick LCA, and am keen to share my views on how circular lighting and M&E can help tackle embodied carbon.

Get in touch at Tim.Bowes@whitecroftlight.com   


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