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Carbon Working Group's White Paper

Structure and Carbon: How Materials Affect the Climate

The entire paper is available for download via the link below. You are encouraged to freely distribute this document to whoever may benefit from it. Distribution and use is governed by Creative Commons licensing: Creative Commons
Creative Commons License

This paper was written by the Carbon Working Group of the ASCE/SEI Sustainability
Committee. We are a dedicated and concerned group of engineering professionals with design, industrial, and academic backgrounds. We are united in our passion for addressing the causes of climate change today through professional practice.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), along with numerous other regional, national, and transnational scientific associations, concludes that the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHG) we are emitting into the atmosphere are putting us at considerable risk. “Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations,” where very likely is defined as greater than 90% probability of occurrence (IPCC Synthesis Report, 2007). The report describes significant impacts under various emissions scenarios. Under a businessas-
usual scenario, temperature rises due to greenhouse gas emissions are expected to cause very serious changes to food productivity, water security, ecosystem resiliency, coastal communities, weather patterns, the frequency and severity of storms, and the prevalence of cardio-respiratory disease. Additional concerns include maintaining peaceful international relationships amid water and food scarcity and relocating large populations of environmental refugees (Burke et al. 2009).

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for a very long time; the build-up is accelerating relative to the decay of these gases. The urgency of reducing carbon emissions in the short term is not widely recognized. A recent report (Committee on America’s Climate Choices, 2011) by the National Academy of Sciences summarized the necessity of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the near term:
  • “The faster emissions are reduced, the lower the risks posed by climate change. Delays in reducing emissions could commit the planet to a wide range of adverse impacts.”
  •  “Waiting for unacceptable impacts to occur before taking action is imprudent because the effects of greenhouse gas emissions do not fully manifest themselves for decades and, once manifested, many of these changes will persist for hundreds or even thousands of years.”
The intent of this white paper is to serve as a primer on greenhouse gas emissions, the most important of which is carbon dioxide (informally referenced simply as “carbon”), for the structural engineering community and others with an interest in the carbon impacts of structural materials and systems. It explains:
  • why structural engineers must understand greenhouse gas emissions;
  • how the construction of building structural systems contributes to greenhouse gas emissions; and
  • how we as a profession can help reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with structural systems.
The paper also points to the need for higher quality and more publicly available data relevant to structural engineers in the U.S. To aid engineers and architects in material selection and design, the authors hope that individual product manufacturers and trade associations will move toward engaging third parties to evaluate and certify the greenhouse gas emissions associated with their products.

Ultimately, the authors hope that this paper will spur actions that will reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with building structures. The materials in the built environment are a substantial source of anthropogenic carbon emissions, and structural engineers have unique opportunities to specify materials for construction projects that can significantly affect the contribution of each project to more climate changes. As structural engineers, our choices make a difference. We can reduce the risk of destructive climate change impacts by choosing and using building materials with climate change in mind. This white paper introduces some strategies structural engineers may use to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For further information, see the SEI Sustainability Committee’s Sustainability Guidelines for the Structural Engineer (Kestner et al, 2010).

Helena True,
Dec 4, 2012, 2:07 AM