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What is Embodied Carbon?

As part of a product’s carbon footprint, embodied carbon is a measurement system used to calculate the sustainability of new development.

The carbon footprint is a concept that’s central to the practice of sustainable development. It’s an accounting system devised for quantifying the economy’s impact on the environment. A carbon footprint can be attributed to any strand of the economy, from social groups to organisations, to industry sectors, geographical areas, and nations.

What is embodied carbon?

An embodied carbon score represents the amount of greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere during a product’s lifecycle, excluding operational carbon.

Embodied carbon, which accounts for a major portion of a product’s total carbon footprint, includes the extraction and processing of raw materials, manufacture, transportation, assembly, maintenance, disassembly, and disposal. Operational emissions are not included as part of a product’s embodied carbon score. Where operational emissions are extremely low, embodied carbon can represent as much as 50% of a product’s total carbon footprint. 

Early theories of embodied energy

In the 18th and 19th centuries, economists were exploring the concept of an energy footprint.

The focus was on manual labour.

Adam Smith (1723-1790), a Scottish economist and philosopher, known as the Father of Economics, or the Father of Capitalism, was one of the first to subscribe to the Labour Theory of Value (LTV).

In his famous book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (usually referred to as The Wealth of Nations), published in 1776, Smith says:

“Labour is the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities.”

Ukrainian socialist, Sergei Podolinsky (1850-1891), developed a Labour Theory of Value based on embodied energy.

From Podolinsky’s essay, Socialism and the Unity of Physical Forces, published in 1880:

“In accepting the theory of the unity of physical forces or of the constancy of energy, we are also forced to admit that nothing can be created, in the strict sense of the word, through labour, and that consequently, all the usefulness of labour, the goal for which it strives, can be nothing other than a transposition of a certain quantity of forces.”

Ecological economics

Ecological economics is a branch of economics that was developed in the 1980s. Concerned with sustainable development and the management of renewable resources, ecological economics positions human economic activity as a subsystem of the Earth’s ecosystem. This philosophy audits the economy’s ecological footprint.

In the context of ecological economics, a distinction is drawn between “growth” and “development”. Economic growth implies consumption of natural capital, resulting in impoverished resources. Economic development, on the other hand, is a sustainable process, which makes use of natural capital without compromising the availability of natural resources.

American biologist, Paul Ralph Ehrlich (born 1932), said, “Economic growth as it now goes on is more of a disease of civilisation than a cure for its woes.”

Inventory of Carbon and Energy

The Inventory of Carbon and Energy (ICE) database was originally developed by researchers at the University of Bath, in collaboration with the Building Services Research and Information Association (BSRIA), for use in the construction industry. Its purpose was to promote and enable sustainable development.

In its introduction, BSRIA says:

“Building services engineers need to understand about embodied energy … [and they need to] understand the trade-offs between high embodied carbon and low operational carbon and vice versa.”

The ICE database provides unit values. For example: each kg of limestone will contribute 0.01577kg of CO2 to a building’s total embedded carbon; for each kg of gypsum, it’s 0.002536kg of CO2; one kg of fly ash contributes 0.004kg of CO2.

The unit values for a material are multiplied according to the quantity used. For example, 10kg of limestone has a carbon score of 0.1577(kg CO2); for 15kg of gypsum, it’s 0.03804(kg CO2); and for 20kg of fly ash, it’s 0.08(kg CO2).

The carbon scores of all materials are added together. The examples above give us a sum of 0.27574(kg CO2).  

Contact Aqua Libra Co

At Aqua Libra Co, we’re committed to sustainable development and the Race to Zero. Simple, robust, and energy efficient, our products have low embodied carbon, and in operational terms, they’re market leaders. Aqua illi, Aqua Alto, and Aqua Bottlers are all ideal components in a sustainable building.

To talk to us about energy-efficient water dispensers, BREEAM credits, or anything else, give us a call on 0800 080 6696 or email We look forward to hearing from you.

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