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Whole Life Carbon Assessment

Shortlisted for the Net Zero Accelerator Award

Why we need whole life carbon data


The global built environment is the source of more than a third of total greenhouse gas emissions. 

Removing carbon from existing and new buildings requires us to know when and where emissions are generated, and at what volume. That is what 'whole life carbon’ (WLC) data offers. Yet, it is estimated that there are currently less than 1% of buildings projects being evaluated in a way that quantifies the scale and source of carbon emissions generated during their lifespans, even though this is an essential step if the most effective decarbonisation actions are to be identified. 


Whole life carbon data for buildings remains extremely limited, highly variable in quality, and collected in ways that don't allow comparison. This is what prevents building designers, planners, construction firms and asset owners from implementing net zero plans rapidly and at scale. Large, comparable datasets are the key to enabling net zero carbon buildings to become a reality. Without them, there will be no scaling of net zero buildings. Whole life carbon data will allow us to deliver embodied and in-use carbon efficiencies. These goals remain of top priority if the global property sector wants to keep their commitment set out in the Paris agreement to halve emissions from the build environment by 2030. 


Going above and beyond

In November 2021, Arup announced a commitment to whole lifecycle carbon (WLC) assessments for all building design projects undertaken for clients, crucially encompassing both embodied and operational carbon across all new build and retrofit initiatives globally. As sustainability advisors to the UK Government for COP26, the announcement was a first in the global built environment sector.

Between April and November 2022, over 1100 Arup engineers and design team members calculated emissions for almost 1,000 projects across 30 nations and 5 continents on behalf and in partnership with clients including: 

  • 954+ assets 

  • 650m2 floor space 

  • 16 building typologies 


By November 2022, the firm was able to share an international, comparable dataset of whole life carbon emissions for buildings at COP27.

Launched at COP27, the firm’s new software platform, Zero, uses the WLC assessment project to advance transparency and understanding of carbon emissions across projects around the world. In a collective drive to decarbonise global property, the insights from the WLC assessment dataset have enabled clients to develop strategies to cut emissions.

Dedicated to facilitating the industry’s progression towards 50% carbon emissions reduction by 2030, Arup’s WLC assessment was the collaborative next step in meaningfully contributing to the Paris Agreement’s goal of preventing global warming from exceeding 1.5°c, in demonstratable consideration of Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions.

Accelerating net zero

The WLC assessment dataset forms an integral part of Arup’s net zero carbon strategy and is a key component to helping our clients advance their climate leadership journeys. It offers a route map to emissions reduction through behaviour change and the adoption of best practice in action areas, including energy, waste, purchasing and travel.

In an industry-first approach, Arup has been able to offer clients and project partners a new method for analysing options for carbon emission reduction across building subsystems and lifespans. Taking information from almost every live building project, regardless of phase, within Arup’s global buildings design portfolio, a completely anonymised and aggregated data collection platform was established. It provides a high-level assessment path for each individual project, considering designers’ intent as well as the multidisciplinary contributions as a project progresses, generating an estimation of whole life carbon. As partners to buildings clients throughout the entire process, from pre-concept to post-completion operations, continued adoption of the WLC assessment data has encouraged better decision making by property investors, building owners, designers, construction firms and regulators.

The dataset has given insight into a range of nuanced sector trends and elements. For example, design choices can lock carbon emissions in via existing cost models so early design decisions need to be informed by aggregated data derived from construction stage emissions. Insights also show that carbon emissions increase through the design and construction cycle. Buildings' whole life carbon is lowest at concept stage and then creeps up. Relative proportions of embodied carbon are split by sub-systems of buildings and poor visibility of MEP (mechanical, electrical, plant) material data is limiting decarbonisation innovation. Further research and more industry data is needed in these areas. Our aim is to run a second year of data collection in 2023 to make the data even richer.  We are also working with infrastructure disciplines and the Net Zero Carbon infrastructure group to expand the tool to support data collection for infrastructure assets. 


These insights have the potential to play a crucial role in the global property sector’s ability to achieve its net zero commitments.. 


“In taking this crucial first step, we have been driven by a determination to overcome the barriers to scaling net zero buildings. Comparable and open whole life carbon data is the tool that will allow actors across the global property value chain to make better decisions about building decarbonisation – and to achieve significant emission reductions at scale and at pace.” - Alan Belfield, Arup Chair


Industry transparency for collaborative success

The ideology behind the initial stages of the WLC project was underpinned by Arup’s ambition for collective success. A 2021 survey showed that 90% and 50% of large consultancies and SMEs respectively had signed a public net zero strategy pledge; Arup’s WLC assessment dataset, as well as the resulting Zero tool, serves to implement action plans in delivery of this sentiment. Working to achieve the UN’s ‘2030 Breakthrough Outcome for the Built Environment’ ambition, the evolution of Arup’s WLC dataset has served as an open call on other actors across the global property, construction and building design sectors to work together to establish open and comparable WLC datasets, supporting one shared goal of at least a 40% embodied carbon reduction by 2030.

In less than a year of data collection and analysis, huge impact and progress has been felt as organisations are able to set, share and understand the universal landscape of carbon benchmarks using the WLC dataset. The approach serves to facilitate and support global property sector actors to drive their supply chains towards rapid decarbonisation.

“Delivering net zero buildings requires transformative action by industry leaders. Arup’s decision to incorporate whole lifecycle carbon assessment for all of its buildings commissions, and on a global basis, is game-changing and it will help to accelerate the buildings sector’s progress toward net zero. Arup’s decision is precisely the type of advocacy we encourage signatories of WorldGBC’s Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment to take. The Commitment now incorporates requirements to address embodied carbon as a part of a whole lifecycle carbon approach” - Cristina Gamnoa, CEO the World Green Building Council

The impact of the initial WLC assessment project is continuing to take shape, measuring the scale of the climate impact of the built environment, as well as understanding the granular detail. From the dataset initiative, Arup has been able to make an estimate of emissions arising from the firm’s global building design project portfolio – named the ‘carbon handprint’. This insight details both the anticipated whole life carbon emissions. In 2022, this dataset showed the firm’s carbon handprint was 350 times greater in comparison to carbon footprint. This benchmark forms the basis of continued methods for action, prioritising science-based decarbonisation and adaptation across all building design projects. This concept encompasses the need to take action to reduce both embodied and operational carbon and throughout various stages of the supply chain to scale net zero buildings.

The initiative is an industry-first, a means and motivator for transparency between industry actors. It is a first step in wider cultural change within the sector, serving as confirmation of the need for collaboration rather than competition to be at the forefront of integrated decarbonisation plans.

“The need to decarbonise buildings’ operational and embodied carbon is an urgent one if the global built environment sector is to contribute this decade to progress. We support Arup in its call for all non-state actors in the global property value chain to use whole life carbon data to drive rapid decarbonisation of buildings. The High-Level Champions are calling for all new and refurbished buildings to be net zero in operation and to achieve at least 40% reduction in embodied carbon by 2030 at the very latest.” - Nigel Topping, UN High Level Climate Champion for COP26

The development of Arup’s Whole Life Carbon Assessment dataset is a primary accelerator to achieve decarbonisation, playing a crucial role in the built environment’s ability to reach its net zero commitments.

In looking to the future, the WLC international, comparable dataset has the potential for replication across wider infrastructure sectors. 

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