The global economy is largely based on the extraction and use of the full range of materials that come from and return to the Earth such as wood, minerals, fuels, chemicals, plants and animals, soil, and rock. The United States in particular uses huge and increasing amounts of materials. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “With less than 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. was responsible for about one-third of the world’s total material consumption in 1970-1995.”

Embodied carbon is the carbon footprint of a material. It considers how many greenhouse gases (GHGs) are released throughout the supply chain, which may include the extraction of materials from the ground, transport, refining, processing, assembly, use, and end of life. EPA has found that more than 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions result from production, transportation, use and disposal of material goods.

Embodied carbon emissions make up a large share of the emissions from the construction sector. Cities can encourage extending the life of the materials used in existing buildings, rather than approving demolition and building anew. A further significant amount of carbon emissions is avoided when an existing building is upgraded to improve its energy efficiency and resiliency. Buildings can also be adapted to new functions to minimize emissions, e.g., a shopping center converted to offices.

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