The UN environment program estimates that the built environment accounts for 38% of global carbon emissions. These emissions consequently contribute to global warming potential and to climate change.

There are two primary ways in which the built environment has a carbon impact: operational carbon and embodied carbon. These both contribute to the cumulative emissions from a building over its lifecycle.

Understanding the carbon impact of a single building or a portfolio of buildings will increasingly provide valuable commercial insights as well the basis of decarbonisation strategies.

Operational carbon

The operations of a building causes carbon to be released into the atmosphere – primarily through the energy, water and waste it consumes as part of day-to-day operations.

These day-to-day emissions can be reduced by changing and optimising the way the building is operated.

Simple modifications can be made to how the building is run through operational enhancements or through a spectrum of interventions – from nil cost to a significant investment.

Comprehensive improvements can be achieved by conducting deep retrofits that involve higher levels of planning and investment.

Operational carbon is continuously emitted, therefore the sooner building improvements are implemented, the greater the carbon savings over the building lifecycle.

Embodied carbon

Carbon is emitted during the construction process of a building – and later through the ongoing upgrading of the building systems and also as a result of retrofits. Carbon is emitted from the production of the construction materials themselves, with building materials such as steel, concrete and glass being carbon-intensive to produce. Once produced, additional carbon is then emitted in the transportation of materials to site and by machinery used during the construction.

Over the lifecycle of a building, further embodied carbon is emitted as part of upgrading systems and retrofitting. Finally, decommissioning a building at the end of its life creates additional embodied carbon impact.

For new buildings, the embodied carbon can be minimised by taking a proactive approach from the early days of planning. For existing buildings, the embodied carbon has already been locked in. The opportunity instead lies in the ability to approach to-be-scheduled renovation and retrofitting activities in a manner that will optimise the carbon position of the building. Retrofitting a building typically has less carbon impact than rebuilding and redevelopment.

Reducing total carbon

The total carbon impact of a building lifecycle is measured by combining operational and embodied carbon. From this base, emissions can then be defined in terms of Scopes 1, 2 & 3 categories.

Globally, operational carbon emissions from existing buildings contribute almost three times the embodied carbon in new buildings. The existing building stock is coming under increasing pressure to decarbonise, mainly through wholesale retrofitting. Effective retrofitting reduces operational carbon emissions – mainly through energy efficiency gains- however embodied carbon is created through the retrofitting process.

The interplay of these carbon and financial dynamics need to be understood and incorporated into the management of carbon budgets and decarbonisation strategies.

Without a decarbonisation plan, the total carbon impact of a built asset will tend to continually increase due to the ongoing operational carbon emissions.

With a decarbonisation plan and when a building is upgraded after an intervention, the immediate increase in embodied carbon is offset by the ongoing reduction in operational carbon, resulting in large total carbon reductions over the lifetime of the building.

The sooner interventions are implemented, the greater the lifecycle carbon savings that you can lock in and accumulate. Not all pathways to net zero are created equally as its the cumulative emissions that are important. It makes a difference- with a “business as usual” decarbonisation pathway potentially releasing as much as twice the amount of cumulative emissions compared to a 1.5 degree-aligned pathway.

Meeting your Scope 1, 2 & 3 targets

For both existing building stock and new developments, GreenPlace will guide you on the pathway to your net zero goals.

Our software and consulting services drive reductions in carbon emissions over the total lifecycle of real assets. View our case studies for a sample of the initiatives we have worked on and to see some of our customers.


The GreenPlace conviction is that decarbonisation goes hand in hand with business excellence.  Of course it also brings broader benefits to the climate and society for future generations as well as meeting regulatory and benchmarking requirements. We present decarbonisation strategies and plans in a way that businesses can understand, action, measure and report on.

View our Solutions