January 2021

A Carbon Theory of Change

by Andrew Himes, Director of Collective Impact, Carbon Leadership Forum

In the immortal words of Wikipedia, the ancient Roman god Janus was “the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, frames, and endings.” Janus was usually depicted as having two faces, one looking toward the future and one to the past. It’s often said that the month of January was named after Janus, though in reality the first month of the year was named for the goddess Juno, not Janus. (In subsequent years, females weren’t always given the credit they deserved.)

 As a metaphor, however, Janus proves useful. At CLF in January of 2021, we can reflect on our past decade of work to develop the analysis, methodology, data standards, benchmarks, and targets needed to calculate and reduce the embodied carbon footprint of materials and construction. And we can articulate a theory of change to drive our future work to successfully decarbonize the building sector. A theory of change is basically a methodology for planning, participation, and evaluation used at many companies. You begin by defining your long-term goals, and then you map backward to identify the work required to reach those goals.

This moment feels especially fraught: a seismic shift in the political landscape in Washington, DC; rapidly sharpening manifestations of the climate crisis; a new consciousness of the deep connections between social justice and environmental sustainability. In the case of CLF, our theory of change has come into sharp focus. It’s a tripod, metaphorically speaking. We develop and evangelize open-source tools,data and methods to calculate, assess and reduce embodied carbon emissions. We develop policy analysis, model policies, and other tools and resources for embodied carbon policy advocates. And we nurture broad collaboration among companies, organizations, and individual professionals from across the industry to achieve maximum collective impact.

We begin 2021 with a powerful sense of the possibilities before us, and an awareness of the urgency of the moment. CLF is not a small staff working hard to create change on our own. Instead, CLF is a movement of thousands of committed professionals who share a common vision: a thriving world that works for everyone; a building industry that is a source of the solution rather than a part of the problem. We’re delighted to share this moment with you!

Upcoming Events  

Join the first CLF Global Happy Hour!

Friday, January 15, 2021, 9-10:30 am PST

Connect with your peers around the world for this informal, digitally-distanced social extravaganza to build relationships with other CLF members from a bevy of backgrounds, including an assignation of architects, a shrewdness of structural engineers, a pandemonium of policy wonks, and a cascade of consultants from a convocation of companies and an orgy of organizations. Hear the latest news from CLF and have a conversation with a compatriot you've never met. Connect with other members of the CLF community and help determine topics to discuss in happy hours throughout the year!

Register in Advance

2021 Policy Webinar: 

Understanding Washington's "Buy Clean Buy Fair" Bill

Seattle Regional Hub of the CLF Community

Wednesday, January 21, 2021, 9 – noon PST

Learn more from Meghan Lewis (Carbon Leadership Forum), Stacey Smedley (Building Transparency), and Kirsten Smith (AIA WA) about the Buy Clean Buy Fair bill introduced in Washington's 2021 legislative session, how EC3 could be used to comply with the bill, and opportunities to support legislation.

Buy Clean is a procurement policy approach that aims to fill a current gap in climate policy by incorporating low-carbon construction purchasing requirements that address the greenhouse gas emissions from construction materials into government purchasing.

Zero Carbon: Can Built Environment Education Deliver?

Monday 8 February 2021, 9 – 10 am PST

Buildings & Cities will host this event together with CLF. Education and training are a key means to help address the climate emergency by ensuring a critical mass of entrants to the professions have the necessary ethics, knowledge, skills and competences toachieve a zero-carbon built environment. Is the current higher education curricula for built environment professionals adequate to meet this challenge? What can be done to positively influence the situation?

Register in Advance
CLF Announces New
Embodied Carbon
Policy Toolkit

Driving down embodied carbon requires a complete system
Valid, accurate, and reliable data. Transparency and reporting requirements. Alignment with rigorous standards. Public EPD database.

Setting the stage with Buy Clean legislation
In the US, Buy Clean legislation in California (and proposed in other states) has led the way to requiring the procurement of low-carbon materials for publicly-funded projects.

Exploiting missed opportunities to decarbonize buildings

Throughout 2020, the Carbon Leadership Forum invested significant resources in developing an array of resources to support the development of embodied carbon policies. Capping that effort on January 1, 2021, the CLF announced the release of an Embodied Carbon Policy Toolkit, offering policy-makers, industry professionals, and climate activists a carefully designed package to guide the development of decarbonization policies at municipal, state, and national levels.

Embodied carbon policies take a variety of forms, depending on the level of government involvement and the scope of behavior the policy is intended to address. Examples include:

  • Procurement policies (like Buy Clean and material-specific variations)
  • Climate Action Plans
  • Building codes
  • City zoning, land use, and building regulations and incentives, including building and material reuse policies
  • Executive orders addressing embodied carbon of building and industrial sector emissions

CLF founder and executive director Kate Simonen emphasized the urgency of using policy as a lever to address embodied carbon on a wide scale: "The logical conclusion of the Paris Agreement is that we must drive carbon emissions down in every sector and must approach these reductions in a systematic way.We already know how to create energy-efficient buildings, and we’ve made good progress on the energy side of the equation. Reducing the impact of building materials and construction -- as much as or more than 50% of the life cycle carbon of a building -- is both important and under-addressed. We must act now to implement effective low-embodied carbon policies and practices. Emissions released now are more critical than emissions released later--we don't have time to wait."

The policy primer series begins with an introduction to procurement policies, also known as Buy Clean. Keep checking back to see additional primers on other policy areas.

Policy is an essential step towards creating the scale of action required to rapidly reduce embodied carbon in construction. Alongside a rigorous scientific approach to developing tools and data for decarbonization, innovative policies can create a market demand for lower carbon products and encourage harmonization of embodied carbon reporting. These policies also require capacity building across the building industry to be implemented successfully. Members of the Carbon Leadership Forum network play a vital role as leaders in their organizations and communities who can share best practices and knowledge.


CLF Research Scientist Meghan Lewis
Explore the Toolkit
By The Numbers  

Buy Clean map
Buy Clean legislation: A highly leveraged way to promote low-carbon innovation
Buy Clean legislation was first enacted into law in California in 2018, and since has been introduced in Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and Minnesota state legislatures. A New York State law aims to reduce the carbon footprint of concrete. Local action to curb embodied carbon has been adopted in a range of jurisdictions, including Seattle, Portland, Eugene, Marin County, CA, Austin, TX, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Tour the policy toolkit to learn more.
Monica Huang

Monica Huang has been a research engineer on the staff of the CLF since 2016, specializing in environmental life cycle assessment (LCA). Her recent research topics include the environmental impact of housing, optimizing tall wood structures, and developing data on the environmental impact of earthquake damage. She was also the lead author for a guide on the use of LCA in design and construction practice. Her past research experience includes diverse topics such as astronomy, electronic waste, and sea level rise.  As a graduate student, she developed the Port of Seattle’s first study on the impacts of sea level rise on seaport structures.

Read Monica's Essay

This month’s action checklist

Join the online CLF Community – focus groups, information, collaboration, research, resources, exploration, innovation.
Check out Carbon Leadership Forum News with comprehensive coverage of the movement to reduce embodied carbon.

About the Carbon Leadership Forum at the University of Washington

Who We Are

  • The Carbon Leadership Forum accelerates transformation of the building sector to radically reduce the embodied carbon in building materials and construction.
  • We pioneer research, create resources, foster cross-sector collaboration, and incubate member-led initiatives to bring embodied carbon emissions of buildings down to zero.
  • We are architects, engineers, contractors, material suppliers, building owners, and policymakers who care about the future and take bold steps to eliminate embodied carbon from buildings and infrastructure.


© Copyright 2022

Carbon Leadership Forum
University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98105-5726
United States

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