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The risk of burden shifting from embodied carbon calculation tools for the infrastructure sector

Jackson, David J., Brander, Matthew
Journal of cleaner production 2019 v.223 pp. 739-746
assets, attributional life cycle assessment, carbon, empirical research, greenhouse gas emissions, infrastructure, learning, risk assessment
The infrastructure sector is associated with a large proportion of total greenhouse gas emissions, including the emissions from the production of materials and the construction of infrastructure assets, as well as use phase and end of life emissions. Largely due to the direct control the sector has over pre-use phase emissions, a number of carbon calculator tools for the sector focus exclusively on these sources. However, a recognised limitation with considering only parts of the whole life cycle is the risk of burden shifting, e.g. reducing material input emissions but increasing emissions in the use or end of life phases. Despite recognition of this problem in principle, there are very few empirical studies which explore the risk and impacts of burden shifting within the infrastructure sector, or construction sector more broadly. This paper addresses the gap in the existing literature by exploring the possibility of burden shifting occurring due to the use of an embodied carbon calculator. The analysis shows that burden shifting will occur for some actions aimed at reducing embodied carbon, but not others, e.g. in Decision Case 4, an initial saving of 5,810 tCO2e during construction was offset by increased use phase emissions in as little as six years. In order to support the use of embodied carbon calculators we propose a number of heuristics to identify cases where burden shifting may occur, and therefore where a whole-of-life assessment is needed. We also suggest that the infrastructure sector is in a learning process in terms of carbon measurement, and that over time there should be a transition from embodied carbon calculators to whole-of-life assessment, and from whole-of-life attributional life cycle assessment to consequential carbon assessment methods.