About one-quarter of US greenhouse gas emissions from 2016 to 2050 will be attributable to embodied emissions from materials and construction, according to an MIT estimate. But an active approach to addressing regional priorities in building could cut these emissions by 30%, researchers say.



The United States is entering a building boom. Between 2017 and 2050, it will build the equivalent of New York City 20 times over. Yet, to meet climate targets, the nation must also significantly reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of its buildings, which comprise 27 percent of the nation’s total emissions.

A team of current and former MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHub) researchers is addressing these conflicting demands with the aim of giving policymakers the tools and information to act. They have detailed the results of their collaboration in a recent paper in the journal Applied Energy that projects emissions for all buildings across the United States under two GHG reduction scenarios.

Their paper found that “embodied” emissions — those from materials production and construction — would represent around a quarter of emissions between 2016 and 2050 despite extensive construction.

Further, many regions would have varying priorities for GHG reductions; some, like the West, would benefit most from reductions to embodied emissions, while others, like parts of the Midwest, would see the greatest payoff from interventions to emissions from energy consumption. If these regional priorities were addressed aggressively, building sector emissions could be reduced by around 30 percent between 2016 and 2050.

Quantifying contradictions

Modern buildings are far more complex — and efficient — than their predecessors. Due to new technologies and more stringent building codes, they can offer lower energy consumption and operational emissions. And yet, more-efficient materials and improved construction standards can also generate greater embodied emissions.