Somewhere along the way, fossil fuels have gotten a bad rap. Coal, oil, natural gas — you name it. We use fossil fuels for everything from creating electricity, warming the shelters we live in and scooting around town. Burning fossil fuels has become a necessity for our way of life. The main reason that burning fossil fuels has conventionally gotten a poor reputation is the proposition that when we burn them, they release carbon dioxide, which contributes to this idea of global warming. Anyone who has grown up in or visited a metropolis area with smog can imagine all this weird brown air just drifting around with nowhere to go. The sky is supposed to be generally the color of light blue with some puffy clouds now and then, right?
We can imagine these carbon dioxide gases being trapped in our atmosphere and limiting the amount of solar radiation that should be bounced back into space. For Ethan, that was pretty much the extent of his own perception on the subject along with the experience of inhaling smog and feeling his lungs burn when he was growing up. Whether or not any of us are convinced that Gaia is heating up due to our own parasitic behavior or it is just a cycle in the billion-year birthday of earth, how much energy do we really need, and what is the best way to get it?
For Abigail, she became convinced that burning fossil fuels was a larger issue than expected when she learned the true extent of burning fossil fuels — not only the direct costs but also the indirect ones. We have all paid monthly utility bills or filled up our cars with gas and felt that direct cost from our wallets. And many of us have already even heard that physically burning fossil fuels in our homes or in our factories adds pollution to our air and our water — another example of a direct cost. But there are some indirect, hidden externalities that we don’t see or talk about that are making even larger impacts on the world than a smoggy sunset in our cities.
Embodied carbon is the amount of carbon dioxide that is emitted from the manufacturing, transporting and installation of building materials. This is different than the operational carbon of a building, which only includes the carbon dioxide emitted from the building’s energy consumption after it is operational. Just about every manufactured building product has embodied carbon associated with it.
Ultimately, architects and engineers create safe places for people to work, thrive and survive. One cannot help but think about the energy it takes to create and operate these safe environments and how it impacts the most vulnerable among us. As homelessness remains an issue in society, it may be unfair to think that it is a problem in just our more temperate geographic areas. Could rising fuel costs and geopolitical issues add to that burden of people needing to leave cold weather climates? Sure, we might think that global warming would make winters easier for everyone to survive. On the flip side, what if warming artic environments actually caused sub-zero temperatures to creep into areas where we would have wished they stayed put.
As professionals in the building and construction industry, it is important for us to have knowledge around what we do and how it impacts the greater community as well as ourselves. At some point in our future, the demand for fossil fuels will exceed supply, making them uneconomical. Instead of the question being, “What do we do when we run out?” maybe it can be, “How do we slow down the problem and allow ourselves more time to adapt and develop cleaner resources?” If we become too hyper-vigilant around the “evils” we might tend to freeze up and not act at all. Instead of not acting at all, we should continue to educate ourselves and be open to understanding the issues.
Let’s think about embodied carbon for a minute. Embodied carbon is the amount of carbon dioxide that is emitted from the manufacturing, transporting and installation of building materials. This is different than the operational carbon of a building, which only includes the carbon dioxide emitted from the building’s energy consumption after it is operational. Just about every manufactured building product has embodied carbon associated with it. Just as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were banned in 1994, other products or processes may be determined to be detrimental to the environment.
The first product that comes to mind in plumbing engineering is drainage piping. Imagine a rating that identifies the embodied carbon of every product we specify, like calories on a menu at a fast food restaurant. How would PVC score against Cast Iron? We’re not here to throw fuel on the healthy nature of competitive commerce, but if an owner or client required us to be versed in the knowledge it would behoove us to do so.
Where does this leave us then as professionals in the building industry? As an Architect, Abigail recommends that design teams simply start asking their engineers questions to initiate the conversation. Asking questions like: “How can we use less ductwork in this project?” and “Are there ways to make the sprinkler layout more efficient that we should keep in mind for the architectural ceiling plan layouts?” or “Are you aware of any EPDs (Environmental Product Declarations) or HPDs (Health Product Declarations) for your products and materials and would you be willing to send your vendors a letter requesting them?” These types of questions can bring a more sustainable awareness to a project and add a perspective an engineer may never have had.
The theologian Desmond Tutu once wisely said, “There is only one way to eat an elephant: A bite at a time.” We may not be able to stop burning fossil fuels completely today, a demand that is overwhelming, daunting and even impossible, but we can start thinking in terms of our own bite size impacts. Often the most efficient way to tackle a large problem is piece by piece and through incremental growth. Sometimes, it can only be done by looking at each project we work on and tackling these “necessary evils” one bite-size piece at a time and taking the path of less resistance.