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International development of EPDs

The greening of construction (Part II): International development of EPDs

Unless you have been living under a rock, or on the wrong side of the digital divide in a slum, you will be aware that last week I introduced the idea of EPDs, or type III environmental declarations, in the construction sector. I asserted that they were a useful and important addition to the armory of measures that currently vie to push human society towards the much vaunted but elusive goal of sustainability. The construction sector is leading other industries internationally in the development of EPD schemes so perhaps offers some sort of template for the wider use of EPDs.

The International Standards Organization’s aim with construction EPDs is to “encourage the demand for, and supply of, building products that cause less stress on the environment” and stimulate the demand for “continual environmental improvement”. ISO 21930:2007 provides the principles and requirements of EPDs for building products.

My humble aim with this week’s foray into environmental acronyms is to compare the development of EPDs in Europe, North America and the current engine of global construction growth, the Asia Pacific. I suggest that it is useful to compare different regions because the nature of the global value chain necessitates collaboration – developments in one region percolate into others.

Europe

That Europe is awash with green dreams and schemes in no secret. As my recent article on environmental technology verification suggested, they often arise in response to economic imperatives – such as the post financial crisis doldrums.

Yet the proliferation of schemes threatens to descent into a form of product claim anarchy – where a profusion of methodologies leads to mutually unintelligible information flooding the market. Such a scenario would likely lead to manufacturers incurring excess costs (where multiple EPDs need to be produced for each product), to consumer confusion and to policy makers giving up on life cycle assessment (LCA) and reverting to crystal balls and tarot cards.

So the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) recently established the ECO Platform as an umbrella organization for European EPD programs for the construction sector. It aims to:

(1) establish a voluntary, Europe wide system of independently verified EPDs, in which product category rules (PCR) are aligned;

(2) using a life cycle approach;

(3) to communicate credible information about the sustainability impacts of the construction value chain on the basis of EN 15804.

The unifying objective of these mini-goals – harmonization – promises to feed consistent data into the various green buildings ratings schemes in an economically efficient manner.

Asia-Pacific

It should come as no surprise that environmental regimes are less codified and formal in the Asia-Pacific than in Europe. A quick comparison between ASEAN and APEC on the one hand, and the EU on the other, should illustrate this institutional divergence. Accordingly where in Europe the proliferation of discordant EPDs threaten the system, in Asia it is their scarcity that motivates policy makers.

The most well established system for EPDs in the region is Japan’s Ecoleaf which has been operating since 2002 and contains 12 product categories including ‘rubber and ceramic products’ (encompassing construction materials) and ‘architecture’. In China an EPD program is currently being developed.

An Australasian EPD system was launched earlier this year in a collaborative effort by the local LCA societies. The fledgling scheme will be consistent with EN 15804 because the aim was to not miss opportunities in the European construction market given the rapid development of EPDs there.

North America

The development of EPDs is still in its infancy in North America but there is a push for their development for the same reasons as in Australasia. Additionally the latest version of the US Green Building Council’s popular building rating system, LEEDv4 provides credits for the use of materials verified by EPDs. This represents a good example of the integration of life cycle thinking at multiple levels. This, along with such initiatives as Executive Order 13514 that mandates for federal agency procurement to be subject to environmental performance evaluation, should drive the development of construction sector EPDs in the US where there is an established national life cycle inventory database and advanced institutional capacity for life cycle assessment.

Next week I will review the building sustainability rating systems (such as LEED) with a view to assessing the extent to which they are harmonized or at least harmonizing.

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