What is Embodied Carbon?

Making Glass,
Environment & Ecology

The significance of balancing operational and embodied carbon continues to grow.

Understanding Embodied Carbon

As architects and glaziers work to design and construct building projects in a more sustainable manner, the consideration of embodied carbon has become a bigger factor in understanding the overall impact of a project’s carbon footprint.

Designers are working to balance the reduction of emissions from a building’s operations, known as operational carbon, with emissions caused by the manufacturing and installation of construction materials, known as embodied carbon.

Sustainability advocates are working to introduce initiatives, such as the Buy Clean California Act and the California Green Building Standards Code, aimed at reducing carbon emissions associated with the production of architectural products, including flat glass. To understand the impact these initiatives will have on the architectural glass industry, it is important to first understand the role embodied carbon plays in glass production.


Carbon and Architectural Glass Production

An important metric to consider that relates to embodied carbon in glass (or any building product) is Global Warming Potential (GWP). This measure takes all the energy used to create a product and converts it into kilograms of equivalent carbon dioxide, expressed as the term “CO2-eq.” The purpose of calculating GWP is to help stakeholders and sustainability programs more effectively gauge the environmental performance of glass and other products manufactured for buildings.

Most of the embodied carbon in glass originates with the energy-intensive process of heating the melting furnace to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit to convert raw materials to flat glass. The processes of adding energy-efficient low-e coatings, tempering, laminating and fabricating flat glass into insulating glass units also contributes to the glass’s GWP – but to a lesser degree.

In fact, approximately 75% of the embodied carbon in an insulating glass unit (IGU) can be credited to the manufacturing of the flat glass lites. It is estimated that of an IGU’s remaining embodied carbon, 13% comes from heat strengthening or tempering the glass, 10% comes from the IGU fabrication process itself, and just 2% comes from the process of adding low-e coatings.

GWP of Processed Glass

Reducing Embodied Carbon

To further reduce embodied carbon in architectural IGUs, glass manufacturers may consider taking some of the following steps to reduce overall energy consumption in glass production:

  • Improving efficiency within furnace control systems to reduce variability of melting temperatures and fuel consumption
  • Adding low-NOx burners to plants
  • Using variable frequency drives on cooling fans to reduce energy use
  • Utilizing recycled raw materials (both pre- and post-industrial) to reduce fuel consumption
  • Converting facility lighting to LED, which reduces electric consumption by as much as 80% vs. incandescent lighting
  • Using oxy-fuel technology, which can reduce energy consumption in glass melting furnaces by as much as 20% and cut greenhouse gas emissions in half

It also is important to note the return on carbon that energy-efficient glazings deliver. While the production of raw glass does carry embedded carbon, high-performing low-e coated glass reduces the negative environmental impact on the built environment.

Embodied Carbon

Evaluating Embodied Carbon

Environmental Products Declarations (EPDs) are third-party verified documents that provide detailed data about the life-cycle impacts of building products on the environment. EPDs may be used as credentialing for LEED® and other green building certification programs and are now necessary to demonstrate compliance with embodied carbon limits in places like California.

It is important to understand how to properly read, interpret and utilize data that is published in EPDs, which should generally be used to inform and indicate compliance with the requirements of green building rating systems and legislative actions. The purpose of an EPD is to provide information on the environmental impact of the product over its life cycle, and they typically rely on estimations of impacts and can therefore differ across product lines and reported impact. In the context of evaluating embodied carbon, EPDs likely will offer the most value in interpreting how a given product was manufactured and what steps manufacturers are taking to reduce energy expenditures. For more information, review the National Glass Association’s General EPD Education document. You can also read and download EPDs for Vitro Glass products on our website.

Another evaluation tool is the EC3 tool, which is a calculator that helps architects and other stakeholders benchmark, assess and reduce the amount of embodied carbon used among all the building products (including glass) specified for their construction projects.

For information about Vitro’s commitment to sustainable products and practices, please visit https://www.vitroglazings.com/design-resources/sustainability/. For any other glass questions, please contact Vitro Glass or call 1-855-VTRO-GLS (1-855-887-6457).