Kate Simonen: COVID-19 won’t slow embodied carbon movement

Kate Simonen

Kate Simonen has been a leading voice for reducing embodied carbon in buildings for more than a decade. She tackled the issue in 2014 in Life Cycle Assessment, a landmark handbook for architects. From her perch as an architecture professor at the University of Washington, Simonen, who also happens to be a structural engineer, founded the Carbon Leadership Forum, which has become the go-to research and sharing platform for professionals seeking to “decarbonize” the building industry. And she led CLF’s incubation of the Embodied Carbon in  Construction Calculator,  a free and open-access tool for designers and builders.

As part of our ongoing Q&A series on COVID-19 and green buildings, I asked Simonen how the pandemic is impacting the movement to cut embodied carbon. The interview has been edited for length and clarity, and I’ve thrown in a few links for you to explore further. To read other posts in the series, click here.

Broadly speaking, how do you expect the coronavirus pandemic to affect the push to reduce embodied carbon in buildings?

I could talk about that in a range of different ways. One is that there’s already been a growing awareness about building materials. That awareness trajectory has not changed among the people who had understood  before the pandemic that decarbonization is a critical activity. But maybe there’s even more of a hyper-awareness of the impact that a global crisis can have of encouraging change.

As far as the work itself goes, individuals are all affected so differently. Some people have more time and are really charged, so they’re doing more to support the Carbon Leadership Forum and the EC3 tool. Others are busier dealing with the pandemic and had to put this aside. When we think of it as a movement, the disruption [of the pandemic] changes who has the time and the urgency to act.

At the other end of things, this is fundamentally about manufacturing and the economy. It’s about how we will be building. There’s a whole bunch of interesting questions that come up about that.

One is: “How should we invest in a recovery?” I do think there’s a big opportunity there [to use stimulus money] to retool to low carbon. Can we help agriculture by using more agricultural waste in building products? In an ideal world, we’ll also see investments in manufacturing processes that are more efficient.

Recovery can be a time when new ideas come forward. When we make investments, they often move us toward new ways of doing things. But I do think there’s also going to be a challenge there because early innovation often costs more, so there are a lot of choices. …

The bigger picture is that [the pandemic] definitely draws the attention toward how we are making things and where we get them. There’s a lot more public discussion about the supply chain, for instance, because people are more aware of all the workers involved along the way, and that’s a good thing.

Some people are optimistic that the COVID-19 crisis will create a reset — that it will reorient our society to think of ourselves as being able to solve crises.

I do like to keep things positive, and I don’t want to diminish all the pain and death that the pandemic has caused.

When I think of the irreversible damage to the planet though, I think it’s clear that the scale of catastrophe that we’re talking about from climate change dwarfs what is happening from COVID-19. … Just think about the fact that climate change is expected to put us at risk for more diseases. So in addition to making it more difficult to deal with global pandemics, we could end up with multiple pandemics.

My hope is that this helps people see that global impacts are something that we all have to care about. And hopefully people can start to see both what we want to avoid and what we can create. We can see that if we could move to clean transportation, we could have less asthma. That if we could move to better telecommuting, we can spend more time with our families. But I think what we also may see is that when we all work together we can solve problems.

My fear, however, is that in the near term, economic needs may make it more difficult to spend some of the money that needs to be spent early in the cycle on innovations.

Is there a risk that any reforms that aren’t about reducing the threat of infectious diseases will lose all their traction and grind to a halt?

I don’t see that. We opened up over the last few months a new online forum. And we’ve seen more people there than even we expected. And local hubs [of the Carbon Leadership Forum] are opening up everywhere.

More people are stepping up and saying they want to do something. Having set up a framework makes a big difference.

I don’t see it grinding to a halt from people, and I don’t see it grinding to a halt from a policy perspective. Same with building owners. It may not be in the headlines, but it’s something more and more people are involved in trying to do something about. To me, it’s a long-term investment strategy. If you want your company to be prepared for the future, you need to address carbon. It’s both a risk factor and an opportunity.

Now, some firms are having layoffs and that means that they’re slowing down on projects. There’s less money to invest in things, and that means they’re going to have less to spend on exploratory ideas. That’s why I think this will be a very good time to invest in research and development.