2022 State Elections Toolkit
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Key Takeaways:

  • Climate-focused state lawmakers have sought to limit the amount of embodied carbon emitted during the building construction process. Embodied carbon is the sum of all emissions generated by construction materials over the course of their lifecycle, from production to disposal.
  • Restrictions on concrete, which represents one of the highest forms of embodied carbon used in construction, is often the focus of legislative efforts that seek to limit that amount of embodied carbon emissions in building materials.
  • In 2016, California lawmakers enacted the first bill targeting embodied carbon emissions in public infrastructure projects, called the Buy Clean California Act. The effort is catching on in other states, too. Currently, there is pending legislation in ten states addressing embodied carbon in concrete during construction.
  • These efforts to limit embodied carbon emissions at the federal, state, and corporate level should give policy observers reason to believe that “Buy Clean” proposals are only the first step to moving towards zero carbon emissions in building materials.

For decades, climate advocates have made eliminating carbon dioxide emissions their main public policy objective. The effort drives nearly all environmental policy discussions from renewable portfolio standards to electrifying vehicles.  Recently, climate-focused state lawmakers have sought to limit the amount of embodied carbon emitted during the construction process of buildings. Embodied carbon is the sum of all emissions generated by construction materials over the course of their lifecycle, from production to disposal. Restrictions on concrete, which represents one of the highest forms of embodied carbon used in construction, is often the focus of legislative efforts that seek to limit that amount of embodied carbon emissions in building materials.

Last year, Colorado Governor Jared Polis (D) signed into law the Buy Clean Colorado Act (CO HB 1303) that requires materials used in public building projects — including concrete — to not exceed a certain environmental standard or global warming limit. Several months later, New Jersey enacted a law (NJ SB 3091) that requires developers to offer unit concrete products that utilize carbon footprint-reducing technology as an option in new construction. And in New York, lawmakers enacted legislation (NY SB 542) creating a low embodied carbon procurement standard for concrete used in public construction projects. 

Currently, legislation is pending in ten states that would address embodied carbon in concrete during construction. In 2016, a coalition led by BlueGreen Alliance, Sierra Club, United Steelworkers, and others advocated for the Buy Clean California Act, the first bill targeting embodied carbon emissions in public infrastructure projects, which became law in California that year. This year, California lawmakers are debating a bill (CA SB 778) that would add concrete to the list of materials restricted under Buy Clean California. 

While current legislative proposals only deal with concrete used in state-funded building projects, there is no indication that efforts to limit embodied carbon would stop at the public procurement level. Several organizations like Architecture 2030, CarbonCure, the Carbon Leadership Forum, and the World Green Building Council have made eliminating embodied carbon in buildings as a top priority and do not distinguish between private or public construction. 

Federal policymakers have also weighed in on the effort. Earlier this year, the Biden Administration launched a multi-agency “Buy Clean Task Force” to search for ways to boost federal purchases of lower emissions building materials. The administration is also working to secure corporate purchasing commitments for low-carbon materials through the First Movers Coalition. These efforts to limit embodied carbon emissions at the federal, state, and corporate level should give policy observers reason to believe that “Buy Clean” proposals are only the first step to moving towards zero carbon emissions in building materials.