Embodied Carbon and Avoided Carbon from Building Insulation

With climate change top-of-mind for consumers and regulators, it’s no surprise that embodied carbon – the sum of total carbon emitted during a product’s lifecycle – is fast becoming an important measurement for construction materials like concrete and steel, and for building products like insulation.

For insulation products, the concept of payback time is often used to communicate the comparison of up-front carbon cost relative to annual carbon savings. These carbon savings are realized when use of the insulating material results in building-energy savings that offsets the embodied carbon of the material itself.

Embodied carbon is the sum of upfront carbon cost plus lifetime carbon savings One way to represent the benefit of using a combination of insulation products (such as when cavity insulation is paired with exterior continuous insulation) would be to apply the total carbon savings to the total insulation system, relative to its combined embodied-carbon cost. When viewed this way, the payback time is less than two years for most types of insulation used in most regions of North America. Of further note, insulation and air-sealing products typically contribute less than 5% of the total embodied carbon of a newly constructed building. (Note: watch the video below for more information.)

Getting the embodied-carbon accounting right can be difficult, but it can provide one helpful measurement to take into account along with other critical environmental-performance considerations such as human health, building resilience and environmental stewardship.

How to calculate avoided emissions through insulation use

The drive for reducing embodied carbon is at the forefront of product research-and-development for insulation and air-barrier product manufacturers. This reduction can come from optimization of manufacturing processes (reducing Scope 1-3 emissions) as well as reformulation of products (reducing global-warming potential of blowing agents used, or increasing recycled content of raw materials, are some of the options).

Manufacturers must ensure that these changes are made in accordance with the relevant safety standards, including worker-safety and fire-risk management. Careful consideration must also be made to evaluate whether any raw-material changes could have negative impact on the critical performance of the product, in order to ensure that the short payback in carbon is preserved.

With the drive to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, we cannot overlook greater carbon savings that may be forfeited. Selecting foam-insulation products presents an opportunity to capitalize on both environmental – embodied carbon – and performance – carbon savings – criteria.

For more information, watch the video “Conquering Carbon: Evaluating Embodied Carbon in Products for a Sustainable Future” below. (Relevant information begins at the 5:26 mark in the presentation.)