01 PLANET: Are carbon calculations lulling us into a false sense of security?


Are our carbon calculations giving us a false sense of security by narrowly focusing on building emissions? While understanding the carbon footprint of our structures is crucial, could this limited perspective be causing unintended harm? We often overlook the carbon associated with developing the environment—infrastructure like roads and utilities—and the carbon generated by residents’ lifestyle choices in consuming goods, services, and commuting.

The design of our developments significantly influences their overall impact, potentially leading to unintended consequences based on our choices as designers. Is place-based carbon, encompassing factors beyond buildings, more substantial than we realise?

Lifestyle carbon refers to the carbon emissions associate with an individuals or community’s day to day choices such as transportation and personal consumption of goods and services.

Notably, lifestyle choices wield significant influence over an individual’s carbon footprint. For high earners, lifestyle-related carbon can constitute as much as 77% of their total footprint, compared to 22% for heating and electricity use. Achieving Net Zero for high-income individuals in large homes requires strategic interventions and policy measures, not just monetary incentives, or energy-efficient housing.

Focusing solely on building carbon could cause us to miss opportunities for national-scale carbon reduction. A person’s lifestyle is heavily influenced by the facilities and resources available to them. Urban planners must incorporate nudges into their designs to influence positive lifestyle choices. While building with biobased materials is a positive step. It is currently only viable on low-rise housing, thus overall carbon impact may increase if residents heavily rely on carbon-intensive infrastructure, such as widespread car usage which may be necessary with this typology.

Labour’s housing recovery plan based on building 1.5 million new houses in the next generation of “new towns” comes with the challenge of additional infrastructure needs, raising questions about the true carbon cost and the effectiveness in solving the housing crisis. Ignoring lifestyle carbon emissions alongside building and infrastructure carbon creates a knowledge gap regarding the complete carbon cost of our developments.

For instance, a house designed for COP26 reduced upfront carbon to 24tCO2, while a comparable new apartment might reach 37.5tCO2. However, a single two-lane road could have a staggering carbon cost of 600 tCO2/km.

Embracing nature-based solutions and designing out high carbon infrastructure can offer economic and environmental benefits, exemplified by initiatives like our City Edge regeneration, a holistic extension to Dublin’s city centre which eliminated the need for a traditional surface water sewer system using “sponge city” principles.

Designing sustainable places is a multifaceted challenge that requires us to move beyond conventional boundaries and think systemically rather than in isolated silos. This approach enables us to comprehend the combined impact of place-based and lifestyle carbon, empowering communities to collectively address the climate emergency on a significant scale, beyond individual buildings.