Commentary

Legislative trio brings ’embodied carbon’ bill to the table

Democrats aim to leverage the state’s buying power of materials to reduce carbon emissions

May 27, 2021 4:25 am

The Colorado Capitol in Denver is pictured on June 11, 2020. (Andy Bosselman for Newsline)

You’ve heard of climate change. Have you heard of embodied carbon?

If not, you aren’t alone. When it comes to green initiatives, we often turn to topics such as renewable energy or electric vehicles. Yet embodied carbon — the comprehensive carbon footprint of a material — contributes notably to greenhouse gas emissions.

Embodied carbon is notoriously challenging to address for many reasons, but particularly as it spans everything from manufacturing, transportation, installation and the disposal of a material. Even the governor’s Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap sidestepped it almost entirely, despite acknowledging its role.

Enter Colorado’s House Bill 21-1303, a scantily reported bill sponsored by Reps. Tracey Bernett and Barbara McLachlan, and Sen. Chris Hansen.

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

HB-1303 — which has already passed in the House and was introduced in the Senate this past Monday — seeks to leverage the state’s immense purchasing power to help shape material markets toward those that favor lower carbon footprints. Specifically, it will give the Office of the State Architect a task of prioritizing material purchases by setting a “maximum acceptable global warming potential for each category of eligible material.”

One of the prime sponsors, Bernett, uses cement as an example.

State Rep. Tracey Bernett, left. (Courtesy of the office of Rep. Tracey Bernett)

Having earned a civil engineering undergraduate degree from Cornell University and a Harvard Business School MBA, Bernett is intimately familiar with both the technical applications and economics of cement. She says this came in handy when educating colleagues on how the dry, powdery substance can be mixed with water to create a “glue” for binding, or mixed with sand and gravel to create concrete. She chooses to highlight the medium given that globally cement marks the second-most consumed product after water. It also accounts for roughly one quarter of all industrial greenhouse gas emissions due to chemical reactions during manufacturing and the use of fossil fuels in production. This makes it a prime target for emission reduction strategies.

Bernett then explains that by requiring Colorado’s OSA to set a “maximum acceptable global warming potential” for building materials — e.g. cement, steel, asphalt — alongside measures of economic feasibility, the state can wield the billions it spends on construction projects to ensure these funds go toward low- to no-carbon materials. In the case of cement, this means prioritizing the purchase from companies aimed at reducing the life cycle of carbon emissions. Coupled across vertical and horizontal markets, it’s a sizable chunk of funds that can help shape demand for greener construction products.

The economic benefits of green manufacturing start right here in Colorado.

Rep. Barbara McLachlan represents the 59th District in the Colorado House. (Colorado General Assembly)

One of the many supporters of the bill was LafargeHolcim, an international company that runs a cement plant in Florence. The facility received national attention in 2020 after company leaders announced it would be the first U.S. cement producer to employ carbon capture technology at commercial scale. Currently employing about 125 people, the facility could see increased demand due to HB-1303, leading to an increase in local jobs. As McLachlan says, the measure “will grow good-paying manufacturing jobs in an environmentally safe way. You can do both.”

Yet apparently the promise of good-paying jobs wasn’t enough to sway local district Reps. Ron Hanks and Stephanie Luck, two Republicans with constituents likely to be employed by the cement plant. In a move Hansen said “makes no sense” for the districts, Hanks and Luck voted against the bill — despite clear local support. Neither Hanks or Luck responded to Newsline inquiries.

Bernett and Hansen also noted other potential opportunities for growth, including Evraz Rocky Mountain Steel in Pueblo — a company that announced renewable energy ambitions to “produce the greenest steel” in 2019 — as well as for other manufactured materials such as glass. Especially as several other states consider embodied carbon bills, this could help put Colorado manufacturing front and center.

HB-1303 didn’t happen overnight.

Sen. Chris Hansen is seen at the Colorado Capitol. (Courtesy of the office of Sen. Chris Hansen)

In 2020, Hansen — who holds a master’s in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in economic geography from Oxford University — sensed “a gap that needed immediate attention” in the state’s climate policy. He created the first version with Senate Bill 20-159, but the bill succumbed to a legislative session marred by COVID-19.

This year, Hansen partnered with Bernett and McLachlan. Taking Hansen’s initial work on SB-159, Bernett was especially set on adding transportation materials. In time, they earned strong support from Colorado’s Energy Office, with Executive Director Will Toor testifying in support of HB-1303 as a “complementary strategy” to the greenhouse gas reduction roadmap.

Bernett also emphasized there were extensive discussions with OSA, the Colorado Department of Transportation and others to ensure the bill met all needs. She notes it was these conversations that led to the two-part bill addressing transportation slightly differently than building materials. With so many state offices and departments fully on board, all three legislators are optimistic as the bill approaches a Senate vote.

HB-1303 stops short of accountability — for now — instead focusing on establishing metrics and prioritization. But Hansen says that if things go as expected, Coloradans can expect related legislation in the future. You might not have heard of embodied carbon before, but get ready to hear a whole lot more about it as early as next year.

SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Trish Zornio
Trish Zornio

Trish Zornio is a scientist and lecturer in behavioral neuroscience and research methodology at the University of Colorado Denver. She has worked for some of the nation's top universities and hospitals and has focused her personal efforts on enhancing the intersection of science and policy, as well as women in STEM. Zornio is an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.

MORE FROM AUTHOR