COP26 – -Embodied Carbon and planning – the London experience

The Blog


The UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, is taking place in Glasgow between 31st October and 12th November 2021. We await to learn what is agreed to secure the UNs’ objective of global net zero carbon emissions by the middle of this century. At Nexus Planning we are working to reduce our carbon footprint and with off-setting have achieved Net Zero carbon status. But we, along with our clients, partners and communities can do more and so in the run up to COP26 we offer some thoughts on how planning and development can influence change in our urban environments, contributing towards the goal of net zero carbon.

 In our latest article, Zena Foale-Banks, Principal Planner, considers how the concept of embodied carbon is being factored into the planning balance.

As the need for climate action continues to intensify, like me, you are probably hearing terms like ‘embodied carbon’ and ‘whole life carbon’ more and more often.

In relation to buildings, embodied carbon is a measurement of their carbon footprint. The measurement calculates how much greenhouse gas (GHG) is released throughout the entire lifecycle of a building, i.e. all relevant emissions released from producing the construction materials, the building process, all the fixtures and fittings inside, and the operational processes, as well as from deconstructing and disposing of it at the end of its lifetime.

The stats around embodied carbon are pretty sobering. The UK Green Building Council estimates that the built environment contributes around 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint.

The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) estimates that 35% of the embodied carbon from a typical office development is emitted prior to the building even being opened. The same figure for a residential development is 51%.

Therefore, one of the key ways of reducing the carbon footprint of the built environment is to retain, sustainably refit and repurpose existing buildings rather than demolishing and rebuilding afresh. The problem is however, that in many cases where this could be done, there can be little incentive to do so – it is often cheaper and more straightforward to demolish and rebuild than it is to retrofit an existing building.

General consensus is that Government funding, tax or other incentives are needed to fill this gap and make the low carbon conversion of our existing building stock viable.  

The other piece of the puzzle is planning policy that empowers investors and developers to seek out these sorts of projects.  Currently, policies that aim to reduce GHG emission often feel out of kilter with climate science.

At the highest level, the National Planning Policy Framework at Paragraph 152 sets out that the planning system should ‘support the transition to a low carbon future in a changing climate’ and ‘encourage the reuse of existing resources, including the conversion of existing buildings’. But given the stark warnings published earlier this year in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) August report, is ‘encouragement’ really enough?

The GLA’s new London Plan seeks address the issue of embodied carbon through Whole Life-Cycle Carbon Assessments and Circular Economy Statements. A Whole Life Carbon approach identifies the best opportunities for reducing the lifetime emissions of development across construction and operation, while a Circular Economy Statement demonstrates how a development will incorporate circular economy measures into all aspects of design, construction and operation. These documents are currently mandatory for schemes that are referable to the GLA but no doubt this requirement will be expanded to most applications in most parts of the Country over the coming months and years.

Nexus Planning recently completed a piece of research that looked at how local planning authorities in London are considering the reuse of existing resources, including the conversion of existing buildings.

Currently three local authorities in London (Camden, Redbridge and City of London) have an explicit planning policy that requires justification for schemes that propose the complete or partial demolition of a building. Such justification could take a range of forms, including structural or design issues, viability, or that the sustainability credentials of a new building would far outweigh the benefits of retention. Bexley, Hackney, Islington and Westminster have policies that reference that refurbishing, retrofitting or repurposing buildings should be ‘considered’ or ‘prioritized’. 

The direction of travel is therefore clear, and it has to be right that we need to move to a low carbon built environment so that whenever possible buildings are adapted and reused. In instances where adaptation is not feasible, consistent with wider planning objectives, or would likely result in higher Co2 emissions, materials should be carefully recycled. However, if we want to actually incentivise investors and developers, we need policies in place that understand the additional costs associated.  These policies will also be key to the improvement of many of our towns and cities where vacant buildings remain empty and unutilised. 

With the Autumn Budget announced tomorrow, there is hope that the Government is seriously considering this space.  It would appear from early announcements that some high streets will get funding to transform disused and run-down buildings into new homes, shops, offices and community facilities.  This might be a step in the right direction, but if we are going to make a successful transition to low carbon conversion and tackle, for example, the chronic housing crises, then much more dramatic plans (and funding) will be required.

The IPCC’s recent report on climate change was widely described as a ‘code red for humanity’ and we all know that immediate, collaborative action is required. With COP26 in Glasgow just around the corner, there’s no better opportunity for policy makers, industry professionals and developers to unite to help tackle climate change.

Authored by Zena Foale-Banks, Principal Planner