Quantification of uncertainty in product stage embodied carbon calculations for buildings

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Decarbonisation of the energy industry and enforcement of strict targets for operational energy consumption means that non-operational greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions, also known as embodied carbon (EC), will soon represent the majority of whole life carbon associated with buildings. EC assessments are often presented as deterministic, single-point values but contain a high degree of variability which is typically unacknowledged. Common sources of uncertainty are variability, data gaps, measurement error and epistemic uncertainty such as absence of detailed material specification (e.g. manufacturer, concrete mix, recycled content etc). Particularly during early design stages when such information is unconfirmed, average material data is used by necessity. While some material databases and LCA software can provide ranges of embodied carbon coefficients (ECC) between some materials and/or the uncertainty within individual manufacturers’ carbon data, the practice of reporting this is uncommon and has limited practicality for whole building assessments. This paper presents a simple procedure that selects the highest impact materials of the EC of an asset and implements a Monte-Carlo simulation to estimate the uncertainty behind the product stage EC assessment. Material coefficients of variation (CoV) are obtained from database values where available, and interpolated values are used in the absence of such data. A product stage EC assessment of a UK educational building, initially undertaken using single data points for each material, gave an EC prediction of 525 kgCO2e/m2 GIFA. Two scenarios were then assessed using our proposed procedure: 1) the full building scope and 2) substructure and superstructure only. It was demonstrated that, for scenario one, the EC can range from 50 to 140% of the original result when considering the extreme results from the Monte-Carlo simulation. Scenario one (considering the full building scope) resulted in an average EC value (mean ± CoV) of 526 kgCO2e/m2 GIFA ± 10.0%. The second scenario (sub- and super-structure only) resulted in an average EC value of 312 kgCO2e/m2 GIFA ± 11.9% with a full range of 45–155% of the original result. This paper shows that a straightforward uncertainty analysis procedure can support designers in understanding the possible range of asset product-stage EC and, therefore, inform construction product selections at an early stage where detailed information is not known. The variation also gives a degree of confidence/caution in the average EC prediction in lieu of a single-point result. The construction product CoV results can be used to set target ECCs on projects to help ensure reliable low-carbon products are specified. If these target ECCs were met, a minimum of 29% and 33% (excl. EPD uncertainty) in product stage EC reductions could be achieved. Future work should extend this method to include additional life cycle assessment (LCA) stages and other uncertainty factors. And, the method could be applied to comparative life cycle assessments and optioneering exercises, as well as including more specific construction product variability data.

Original languageEnglish
Article number111340
JournalEnergy and Buildings
Early online date12 Aug 2021
Publication statusPublished - 15 Nov 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported and funded by a doctoral scholarship from the University of Cambridge Department of Engineering.


  • Carbon mitigation
  • Embodied carbon
  • Embodied carbon coefficients
  • Environmental impact of buildings
  • LCA (life cycle assessment)
  • Uncertainty analysis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Civil and Structural Engineering
  • Building and Construction
  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Electrical and Electronic Engineering


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