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LEED’s Hidden Impact

If a new California law is successfully implemented, thanks in part to LEED's influence it will have a meaningful impact on carbon emissions from the supply chain.
Nadav Malin
October 18, 2017

I first got interested in California’s Assembly Bill 262—signed into law by Governor Brown this week—because it appeared to be thrusting Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) into the mainstream construction industry spotlight. Until this bill, EPDs had been an arcane tool of interest primarily to sustainability professionals. Now that the Buy Clean California Act has become law, every contractor working on California infrastructure and University of California (UC) projects will have to submit EPDs with their bids. 

It’s great that EPDs are going mainstream. If the California law is successfully implemented, expands into other materials, and gets replicated elsewhere this approach could have a meaningful impact on carbon emissions from the supply chain. 

How LEED gets into laws in unexpected ways

It’s also an interesting example of how LEED can have an impact that goes far beyond the projects that actually get certified. 

AB 262 was running into stiff opposition from contractor trade associations in California, and looked like it was going nowhere, because it originally had a very different incentive mechanism. As initially written, the bill proposed that EPDs be scored as part of a bid evaluation by a state agency, and lower carbon footprints would generate bonus points for bidders. 

The contractors hated that approach, because it meant that their bids were going to be adjusted after the fact based on a mechanism out of their control. I guess they didn’t hate the whole idea of the bill, however, because they came to the negotiation with a suggestion: the private sector already has a way to incorporate EPDs into the selection process. Why don’t we adopt what the private sector, i.e., LEED, is already doing?

Shifting the incentive from the awarding of contracts to the specifications/submittals part of the building code made things simpler for everyone, and allowed the bill to move forward. 

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Was LEED’s track record with EPDs oversold?

It may not have been clear to everyone involved, however, that this “established private sector approach” embedded in LEED was actually nascent and untried. One person involved with the bill wasn’t shy about saying—or at least implying—otherwise. He said that they were able to argue, successfully, that “the private sector has already been doing this. It’s in LEED, and LEED has been around since 2000.”

Of course, anyone on this forum knows that EPDs have only been in LEED for a short time: technically, since LEED v4 was introduced in 2013, and effectively only since LEED v2009 was shut down in 2016. Moreover, the actual mechanism adopted into Buy Clean California comes from Option 2 of the EPD credit (Building product disclosure and optimization - environmental product declarations), an option that hardly anyone has so far been able to achieve. 

As we explained in our BPDO Cheat Sheet, the threshold for that option is so high that it won’t be achievable for most projects until we have lots more EPDs available, and the performance thresholds for industry average values are better established. 

This law might help LEED get there

The good news is that Buy Clean California has the potential to speed up the availability of EPDs, and to help make that option in the LEED credit achievable. So there is a nice virtuous cycle here between the private sector (LEED) and the public sector (California State projects). Of course, it’s never as simple as we’d like: Buy Clean California only references the CO2-equivalent value on the EPD, while LEED requires a more complicated comparison based on multiple metrics. 

As I describe in the article Buy Clean California is a pioneering effort to affect a major carbon reporting loophole. If this approach is replicated it can make a real impact on overall emissions reductions. 

It’s also a huge missed opportunity, in that cement and concrete were dropped from the bill thanks to successful opposition from major players in that industry. I hope they get added back in under future revisions to the law.

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