In November 2020, we hosted a roundtable dialogue to discuss setting a maximum lifetime CO2 limit on new Nordic Buildings, building on a policy proposal being discussed by the Nordic Council’s Committee for a Sustainable Nordic Region.
The discussion gathered experts from across the Nordic region, including architects, policymakers, academics and industry representatives to discuss the topic directly with Nordic parliamentarian and one of the proposal's authors Thomas Jensen.
The session focused in on three topics:
- The environmental, social and economic impact of a maximum lifetime CO2 limit
- The steps required to successfully implement such a policy
- The role of materials in this equation
Key Take-away Messages
→ An effective policy lever
There was broad agreement amongst the expert panel that setting a maximum lifetime CO2 limit on new Nordic buildings would be an effective policy lever to reduce emissions in the sector. Such regulation would provide the hard end of the ‘carrot and stick’ approach to cutting carbon emissions in construction, creating the conditions for a market-driven industry change.
All parties are ready to play a role in the green transition, and this policy can not only have the desired effect, but also drive innovation in the sector in a material neutral way. Experience from other policy areas suggests that once governments set out a legally binding direction of travel and timeline, market-driven change takes place at an even greater pace.
Efforts are well underway at a Nordic level to harmonise the methods for LCA calculation, but limits themselves should be determined nationally, with consideration for local conditions and nuances. Ambition on setting the limits should be high, with incremental implementation.
→ Embedding digitalisation
To be able to successfully implement a cap on lifetime emissions, there is a need for widespread use of transparent and simple digital LCA tools that allow easy comparison of emissions and performance of different buildings, methods and materials. Integrating these tools and being able to consider the variables that contribute to construction emissions from the very outset of the design stage is critical to keeping costs down. This is already taking place within the industry to an extent, but needs to become common practice, and the competences must be developed to utilise these tools at the design stage. Transparency, especially around the reality of calculated building lifespan and the regulation of LCA calculations is also an area that needs greater focus.
→ Take the holistic approach
Setting lifetime CO2 limits on new buildings must also be seen as part of a wider holistic policy approach. First and foremost, regulators must also do more to better utilise the existing building stock and materials therein. Additionally, we shouldn’t lose sight of other priorities; there is an acute need to better integrate circular and do-no-harm principles into the policy landscape, especially around resource extraction and biodiversity.
All of this can be done without compromising architectural value, and the goal of creating functional, beautiful and liveable Nordic towns and cities. The policy tool under discussion here should be an effective way to mainstream lifecycle thinking within the construction industry.
→ Wood’s growing role in the material mix
A CO2 limit is a strong performance-based criteria on which to evaluate material choices, enabling the best materials to be used for the right purposes. Even with a material neutral approach, it is clear that while wood is still underutilised in the material mix, innovation is needed across the entire sector; an anti-concrete agenda does not serve the end goal of a low-carbon construction sector.
Digital tools allow for better material choices to be used to reduce emissions, and the panel agreed that this needn’t be at the expense of architectural value, as often great impact can be had in load-bearing parts of the building while facades can retain character through brick for example.
As an example of an area of detail that needs greater attention to level the material playing field, Finland is leading the way on establishing how carbon storage in buildings can be integrated into LCA calculations through the concept of carbon ‘handprinting’.
→ Ambition must be high
The assembled panel agreed that the scale of the climate and biodiversity crises requires that construction sector urgently become part of the solution. The Nordics talk the talk when setting goals, but the success of the policy discussed here is contingent on sufficiently ambitious limits being set at national levels.
Through regulation, governments can create first mover advantage for Nordic companies, from which a globally frontrunning industry can become exporters of knowledge and solutions. It creates the conditions of a Nordic ‘high-altitude training camp’ for designers and construction companies – big or small, urban or rural – to become greenest in the world. Within the Nordics, we have high but unevenly distributed knowledge for how to achieve our shared goals. Improved steps to break down cross-border barriers will make the region stronger as a whole.
The dialogue closed with cause for optimism as Thomas Jensen made the rallying call:
“We must act now… to prevent the worst consequences of climate change… We have no choice.”
“If we can combine new technologies, methods and materials, with rediscovery of the old, I believe we can not only handle climate change we can create beautiful functional buildings that will be the envy of the world. When we combine the fight against climate change with the creation of new jobs and income streams we are changing the world for the better.”
This roundtable was hosted as part of a series by the Nordic Wood in Construction Secretariat that aims to enable Nordic knowledge exchange and discovery of common solutions through the global pandemic.