Our Industry

Embodied vs. Operational Carbon Emissions: Looking at the Basics

By Desmond Greene

The building sector is responsible for 40% of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. The conversation around how to reduce a building’s GHG emissions always refers to operational and embodied carbon. The difference between the two can be confusing. In this blog post, we’ll explain what they mean, how they are different, and why they matter. Understanding these concepts is vital in reducing carbon emissions.

But first, how do we measure GHG emissions? GHG Emissions are measured in CO2e, Carbon Dioxide equivalent. This is a measure used to compare the emissions from various GHGs based on their global warming potential (GWP). It converts amounts of other gases (like methane or nitrous oxide) to the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide with the same GWP.


Operational carbon represents the carbon emissions from sources that a building controls, such as burning fossil fuels on-site. These are referred to as Scope 1 Emissions.

Scope 2 Emissions represent the carbon emissions from the purchase of energy from utility companies, like electricity, steam, and gas. Operational carbon is typically measured in CO2e per year.


Embodied carbon represents the carbon emissions during the lifecycle of building materials. It includes emissions from manufacturing, transportation, installation, and eventual demolition or recycling. It also includes energy and raw material emissions. Embodied carbon emissions are referred to as Scope 3 Emissions are measured in CO2e.


Operational and embodied carbon differ in measurement, scope, and impact. Embodied carbon considers the entire lifecycle of a product or material, with an upfront and permanent impact. Operational carbon is easier to quantify, but its impact is ongoing and can be managed over time through renewable energy use or more efficient systems. Both embodied and operational carbon significantly contribute to a building’s overall carbon footprint and require attention and mitigation.


Understanding operational and embodied carbon is important because of their significant environmental impacts. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, buildings account for nearly 40% of global energy-related CO2 emissions, with embodied carbon contributing around 9% of these emissions. These high levels of emissions are fueling global warming and resulting climate changes (such as increased frequency of extreme weather events and rising sea levels).

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that global warming of 1.5°C could result in the displacement of millions due to these environmental effects. Reducing both operational and embodied carbon not only helps mitigate these catastrophic effects but also creates a healthier living environment.

Our team is committed to the MEP 2040 Challenge. By committing to this challenge, we are advocating for and will achieve net zero operational carbon by 2030 and embodied carbon by 2040, in all of our projects. Through collaboration with these initiatives, innovation, and sustainable practices, we aim to both meet the current demands for reduced emissions and shape the future of building design and construction. If you’re looking for more information on how you can contribute to a more environmentally responsible future, please contact me, and I’d be happy to help.