California becomes the first state in the U.S. to tackle embodied carbon in its building codes

Thought Leaders

California becomes the first state in the U.S. to tackle embodied carbon in its building codes

A series of forest fires in California put additional pressure on state officials to reduce its embodied carbon footprint. (Joel Mott/Unsplash)

The California Building Standards Commission (CBSC) and the Division of the State Architect (DSA) updated California’s building codes last week, putting into effect measures that set a new precedent in the United States. On August 2, California became the first state to “set a general code standards that require the reduction of embodied carbon emissions in the design and building process applicable to both commercial buildings and schools,” a press release from AIA California stated

As previously reported by AN, embodied carbon refers to greenhouse gas emissions that emerge from building materials over their entire life cycle, this includes in manufacturing, transport, installation, upkeep, disassembly, and discarding. 

Last week’s vote puts into motion two significant building code changes to “limit embodied carbon emissions in the construction, remodel, or adaptive reuse of commercial buildings” over 100,000 square feet, and school buildings over 50,000 square feet. The process started in 2019 when AIA California representatives petitioned the state to make the upgrades. The two new codes will augment the 2022 California Green Building Standards Code, Part 11, Title 24. 

Today, building emissions constitute 40 percent of California’s greenhouse gas pollution. California architect Michael Malinowski, who championed the effort, says that addressing this in the building code is a quick, efficient means to reduce carbon emissions. “The American Institute of Architects California has been working for a number of years to help California move forward with decarbonization of our building stock, which contributes approximately 40% of our state’s greenhouse gas pollution,” Malinowski said. “Using the building code in this way is important in shifting ‘business as usual’ across the building industry to also address climate action.” 

“It can take up to 80 years to overcome embodied carbon’s impact through strategies that reduce energy usage or operational carbon; the planet doesn’t have that time,” AIA California President Scott Gaudineer said in a statement. “Today’s actions…codify a cultural shift: to meet decarbonization timelines set by California law, embodied carbon must be reduced in addition to operational carbon.”

California follows Norway’s lead which has become a thought leader in embodied carbon discourse. FutureBuilt, a pilot program sponsored by the Norwegian government, is committed to cutting the country’s embodied carbon emissions in half. The effort started in 2018 when the Norwegian government passed Norwegian Standard NS 3720 Method which offered a new method for calculating greenhouse gas emissions, evaluating emissions based on a 60-year period. The new evaluating method places important emphasis on how building materials are transported to factories and construction sites, and the carbon emissions emitted from that process.

AIA California teamed up with the New Buildings Institute, U.S. Green Building Council, RMI, Architecture 2030, California Construction and Industrial Material Association, Carbon Leadership Forum, ClimateWorks Foundation, EcoBuilding Network, Energy Solutions, Greenmetry, StopWaste, Natural Resources Defense Council, among other organizations, to inform the amendments.

While the new changes don’t go into effect until July 1 2024, AIA California will host a series of seminars in the coming months to help prepare building industry professionals for the updates.