Embodying Sustainability with Embodied Carbon in Lighting

by | May 19, 2021 | News

I attended the LEDucation webinar entitled “Embodied Carbon in Lighting,” presented by speakers Elaine Cook and Leela Shanker. This insightful discussion helped me gain a better understanding of the environmental impact of the lighting industry and the steps that we must take in order to mitigate these risks. Cook first developed her passion for embodied carbon when she moved to New York and joined the AIA’s Committee on Environment. Shanker started investigating embodied carbon in lighting as part of a pilot study of key fixtures while in her former role as part of the WeWork global lighting design strategy team, where she contributed to progressive goals and values. After attending the webinar, I was inspired to continue the conversation about lighting sustainability and arranged an interview with Shanker, who offered me even more perspective on the urgency of these issues.

Cook and Shanker began their presentation by emphasizing the importance of creating intentional dialogue surrounding circular economy and embodied carbon. Cook said, “We have a ton of people coming together across the world to fight against climate change in the lighting industry – all we need are the standards and increased education.” One group working to raise awareness on this issue is the GreenLight Alliance, whose vision is “to light up the world without depleting its resources.” They aim to expand communication across the lighting industry and the general public to share systems, knowledge and contacts, in order to institute circular economy principles in the lighting industry.

Next, Cook and Shanker offered some key terms to know when discussing embodied carbon in lighting:

  • Embodied Carbon: Embodied carbon involves a focus on non-operational carbon emissions with an emphasis on building materials, transportation, installation, and maintenance.
  • Operational Carbon:  Operational carbon refers to emissions related to building energy used to turn the lights on and it accumulates over the use phase of a fixture but its rate of increase can be reduced with technological efficiency.
  • Circular Economy: An economic system that aims to reduce waste by re-capturing materials in the system of production and consumption.
  • Life Cycle Assessment (LCA): An approach to analyzing the carbon emissions associated with the full life cycle of a product.
  • Product category ruling (PCR): The agreed approach to LCA with set assumptions to analyze lifecycles of luminaires.
  • Environmental Product Declaration (EPD): A specific product report that quantifies the potential impact of a particular product over the course of its life cycle in five categories of green house gasses (GHGs).

During our conversation, Shanker discussed industry awareness and outlined that embodied carbon is a new concept to many lighting professionals from both the product and design side of the business.   Shanker referenced a poll conducted during the webinar where she and Cook asked participants whether they were aware of the concept of embodied carbon prior to the presentation. 44% of participants did not have prior exposure to this field of knowledge, but 94% stated that they would use embodied carbon information if available as a result of their learnings from the LEDucation session.  In order to increase action to reduce the carbon footprint of the lighting industry,  Shanker believes that awareness is the best place to start. She commented, “People understanding the concept of embodied carbon has to be the foundation for more progressive standards being developed.”  She continued, “We need to ask the right questions to then develop standards that take a really comprehensive look at different approaches to assessing lifecycle impact of fixtures from an embodied carbon perspective.” There is a strong need for this understanding, so that benchmarks and goals can be incorporated into new and existing standards. She is sure that “this will take cooperation and education of manufacturers and specifiers across the industry.”

With an increase in awareness about embodied carbon in lighting, we would likely see an increase in market demand for the data, showing promise for its widespread use. Shanker commented, “If specifiers know what this concept is about, they can communicate with anyone they are seeking products from that it matters.” From there, a snowball effect may occur, where manufacturers will need to invest in sharing product data in order to secure market share with designers and their clients who prioritize environmental impact.  Currently, The Carbon Leadership Forum and Life Cycle Inventory of The United States are working to increase access to product data by compiling and providing databases for the public. The goal of these initiatives is to save manufacturers time and money by having ready access to information to complete their own Environmental Product Declarations.

As presented in the webinar, there are trailblazers within the lighting industry who are taking steps to alleviate the impact of embodied carbon in lighting.  Different legislative requirements and incentives have also been put in place in an attempt to encourage best practice behavior by rewarding informed decision making based on good data.  Taking precedent from other sectors of the construction industry, the Low Embodied Carbon Concrete Leadership Act (LECCLA) has introduced an effective model to incentivize producers to incorporate low carbon alternatives by allowing them to be cost estimated at a more competitive rate when bidding for work, base their having undertaken an EPD.  This allows products with EPD’s to appear less expensive and therefore more competitive than products that do not have EPD’s.   These initiatives are inspiring, and will hopefully urge other leaders in lighting to follow.

Overall, Shanker and Cook highlight the importance of increasing education and implementing standards in order to combat the environmental impact of embodied carbon. Everyone has a role to play. Manufacturers need to start analyzing factory data and making it visible to the public. Designers need to understand the impact of the different tools they use, align with suppliers who share sustainable values, ask for embodied carbon information, and consider how these concepts can feed into design curriculum. Shanker comments that once this movement gains momentum, “education and standards can then evolve in parallel together and targets set can become more ambitious over time.” In order to truly embody sustainability, we need to commit more sustainable practices and hold each other accountable. Let’s work together to initiate a more meaningful dialogue surrounding the impact of embodied carbon and create a future in which our decisions are based on quality, transparent data.

This article was updated May 25, 2021.