What’s the Difference? Embodied Carbon vs Operational Carbon

The environmental impact of construction has not always been a major concern. However, the Industrial Revolution marked the beginning of a complex relationship between the construction industry and carbon emissions. As construction projects grew larger and more complex, the demand for energy skyrocketed which resulted in increased carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion.  

Today, the construction industry is responsible for up to 40% of global carbon emissions. This number underscores the urgency to acknowledge the environmental impact of buildings, understand underlying factors, and take steps to minimize the damage. To make progress in this eco-friendly journey, it is crucial to comprehend the mechanics of carbon emissions, how they manifest in the industry, and strategies to mitigate their impacts. 

Let us discuss the key types of CO2 emissions: embodied carbon vs operational carbon. 

Understanding embodied carbon 

Embodied carbon refers to the total greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted during the building phase, including the manufacturing, transportation, and installation of building materials. This means that embodied carbon encompasses the emissions associated with everything related to building materials and other lifecycle maintenance tasks like replacing a roof, fitting out a tenant space, or even seemingly minor tasks like replacing carpet or repainting.  

It is worth noting that the term "embodied" emphasizes that these carbon emissions are locked in place before the project becomes operational. In other words, even before the building systems start operating, a carbon footprint has already formed due to the emissions associated with the construction process alone. 

Exploring operational carbon 

Operational carbon refers to the energy needed for heating, cooling, lighting, ventilation, water heating, and powering all those appliances that make our lives easier. Operational carbon includes all the direct emissions resulting from the day-to-day activities and energy demands of the building's occupants, and it provides insights into the energy efficiency and sustainability of a structure as it is used.  

Embodied carbon vs operational carbon  

Embodied carbon and operational carbon exhibit notable differences in terms of their environmental impact, significance, and how project teams can approach a project regarding their reduction.  

Environmental impact 

When measuring environmental impact, embodied carbon occurs primarily during the construction phase of a building. It encompasses emissions stemming from material production, transportation, installation, and disposal. These emissions occur upfront in the construction process and contribute to the building’s carbon footprint before it becomes operational. 

Operational carbon refers to the ongoing emissions resulting from a building's energy consumption during its operational phase, meaning that its impact will be measured based on day-to-day activities and increase over time with the operation of the project.  

While both embodied and operational carbon have substantial environmental implications, their timing and duration of emissions differ significantly. Balancing the two can be one of the primary challenges in carbon-neutral design. 


In the early stages of a project, it is important to assess the potential embodied and operational carbon. While operational carbon often receives more attention, neglecting embodied carbon can limit the potential for significant carbon footprint reductions.  

By considering both aspects, architects and engineers can make informed decisions about materials, techniques, and design strategies for more sustainable buildings throughout their entire lifecycle. 

Associated costs 

Reducing embodied carbon requires careful and deliberate decisions when choosing materials, implementing construction methods, and devising strategies to minimize waste throughout the entire life cycle of a building. Fortunately, sustainable construction practices are advancing rapidly. For instance, low-carbon material alternatives are becoming more readily available. These advancements are helping to make the reduction of embodied carbon not only an environmentally conscious choice but also an economically feasible one.  

Operational carbon, on the other hand, is easier to reduce with less significant investments and by taking small steps toward sustainable practices. By opting for energy-efficient systems, incorporating renewable energy sources, and designing for optimized energy usage, design teams and project owners not only shrink a project’s operational carbon footprint but also pave the way for significant cost savings down the line. It is an investment that pays off, both for the budget and the environment. 

Potential for reduction 

Regarding their potential for reduction, operational carbon is considered more manageable than embodied carbon. This is because these types of emissions can be reduced by the integration of renewable energy sources and the adoption of smart technologies that will lead to long-term results.  

On the other hand, reducing embodied carbon presents greater challenges as a sustainable strategy must be in place prior to the design and construction of a building. Everything including material selection, construction methods, and waste management strategies must be considered as part of a holistic sustainability. Collaboration within the design team and specification of low-carbon material alternatives are working to make the reduction of embodied carbon more attainable. 

Next Steps with Embodied Carbon and Operational Carbon  

Addressing both embodied carbon and operational carbon is crucial for sustainable design and construction practices. Minimizing the environmental impact of material production and the construction processes requires careful consideration of material selection, construction methods, and waste reduction strategies to tackle embodied carbon. Simultaneously, optimizing energy efficiency, reducing energy consumption, and lowering greenhouse gas emissions during a building's operational life are key aspects of addressing operational carbon.  

Collaborative efforts across teams are essential to implementing sustainable construction practices, and engaging with material suppliers, manufacturers, design teams, and construction contractors. To effectively tackle both types of carbon emissions, innovative tools like cove.tool's Embodied Carbon feature can provide valuable support.  

The Embodied Carbon feature of analysis.tool allows professionals to assess and analyze embodied carbon in their projects, guiding informed decisions on material choices, construction techniques, and carbon reduction strategies.  

By incorporating such data-driven tools, professionals can actively contribute to reducing both embodied and operational carbon, fostering the creation of sustainable and environmentally responsible buildings. 



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