The Race to Zero: Procurement for Low-carbon Construction

The CCSP settled in for its November Peer Exchange in anticipation of the upcoming infrastructure planning busy season. Read on to learn about new Federal government procurement standards for low-carbon construction and validation from EllisDon that the market is ready to provide solutions.

Construction and infrastructure development contribute significantly to the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with 13% of global annual emissions coming solely from the embodied carbon of cement, steel, and aluminum, which are just a few of the many materials used to construct buildings and other infrastructure (1).


In Canada, we use about 25 million tonnes of cement, steel, and aluminum each year resulting in nearly 28 million tonnes of GHG emissions (making up half of all electricity generated emissions) – the public sector alone is responsible for 8 million of those tonnes, roughly equal to the pollution caused by 2 million gas cars (1). Additionally, when looking at any individual organization, construction and maintenance is consistently the largest single source of GHG emissions compared to other purchasing categories, ranging from 38% – 56% of total supply chain emissions (2).


All public infrastructure spending in Canada totaled a sizable $62.5 billion in 2018 (1). Though, Federal purchasing makes up only 4% of this, so the largest influence sits with provinces, municipalities, education, and Crown corporations (1). While demand for construction materials is projected to rise, the public sector has major purchasing power to drive demand for low-carbon products on the market to reduce the associated rise of GHG emissions.

The CCSP’s November Peer Exchange, focussed on this topic of procurement strategies for low-carbon construction, where members heard from Ryley Picken, Policy Analyst from the Centre for Greening Government at the Treasury Board Secretariat of Canada and supporting industry representative Jolene McLaughlin, Director of Corporate Sustainability at EllisDon Corporation.

Federal Standard on Embodied Carbon in Construction

The Federal Government is already activating on this, under its Greening Government Strategy, which includes targets to achieve 40% reduction of real property and conventional fleet emissions by 2025, and overall net zero emissions by 2050.

Commitments specifically related to Real Property include:

  1. By 2022, disclosing the amount of embodied carbon in the structural materials of major construction projects.
  2. By 2025, conducting whole building (or asset) life cycle assessments for major buildings and infrastructure projects.
  3. Starting in 2025, reducing the embodied carbon in the structural materials of major construction projects by 30%.

The strong focus on structural materials is because they are the largest contributor to the embodied carbon footprint of a building. For example, approximately 50% of an office tower’s emissions are concrete, 42% steel and metals, then 2% glass, and 6% other.

To meet the first commitment listed above, the Federal Government has released a new Standard on Embodied Carbon in Construction with specification requirements to be included in construction contracts that:

For Design Services

  • Must disclose embodied footprint of structural material (e.g. concrete) used on a project
  • Must reduce embodied carbon footprint of concrete on the project by at least 10% (compared to the Regional Benchmark)
  • Must review construction services compliance with the above requirements

For Construction Services

  • Must disclose the embodied carbon of materials used on the project
  • Must provide evidence (Environmental Product Declarations (EDP’s)) to support the carbon footprint of materials used on the project

Public sector organizations at all levels are encouraged to adopt these specifications in their own procurement and can look for additional guidance and reporting template resources to be available in the coming months.

An Industry Perspective

EllisDon Corporation, a leading construction services provider in this sector, and supporting partner of this session, shared how they are addressing low-carbon solutions in their projects and insights on what is available in the market.

EllisDon started by completing an inventory of their corporate emissions, including both direct and indirect sources, to identify how they can best clean up their own practices while supporting broader industry advancement. They found that 96% of the emissions came from their supply chain, including building materials and building operations. Based on this, they identified the greatest impact would be to work with their clients and other industry stakeholders like designers, engineers, and sub-contractors. With an aim of becoming net zero by 2050, EllisDon has committed to a Science-based Target (SBT), which offers third-party verification and accountability.

Jolene went on to discuss strategies for lowering carbon in construction projects, like using recycled and lower-carbon materials, pursuing material efficiency, and using performance-based design standards. With particular focus on key structural materials:

  • Mass Timber. Wood is inherently a lower carbon option because it requires fewer emissions to produce and can sequester (i.e. store) carbon. Responsible forest management is a key consideration if using this material.
  • Concrete. Emissions can be reduced through efficient material use and replacing cement content with Portland Limestone Cement (PLC) and Supplementary Cementitious Materials (SCM).
  • Steel. Emissions from steel come from deeper in the supply chain at the production stage, which can be more difficult to influence from the buyer’s perspective. Current strategies include using recycled steel content and switching to electric arc furnaces.


Based on its experience, EllisDon’s key tips for buying institutions to lower the emissions of construction and infrastructure projects include:

  • Ensure strategies for lowering emissions are discussed very early in the project phase; and work collaboratively with project stakeholders, especially structural engineers and designers.
  • Evaluate carbon reductions along with cost and schedule impacts to ensure project needs are met.
  • Provide a clear whole building embodied carbon performance-based target. At least 10%, though 20% is consistently achievable, while 40% is aspirational.
  • Request Product Specific EPDs as part of bid documents, which provide information about the embodied carbon of the material. Most products have industry benchmark data available for comparison.

Low-Carbon Concrete Solutions

Both speakers placed great emphasis on concrete as a material that has significant risk and opportunity for lowering emissions. Recommendations for getting market-ready low-carbon concrete solutions included:

  • Design for material efficiency to reduce the overall volume of concrete needed
  • Reduce the Portland Cement content in concrete
    • Replace with Portland Limestone Cement (PLC)
    • Partially replace with Supplementary Cementitious Materials (SCMs)
    • Use real-time monitoring during the curing process
  • Use recycled aggregates
  • Utilization of storage of sequestered carbon in concrete

EllisDon has seen projects achieving 20% emissions reduction from concrete alone, with no cost or schedule impacts; demonstrating a clear call to action that carbon reductions must be considered at the front end of a project.

Overall, there is clear direction setting and validation from both the Federal government and industry that low-carbon construction solutions do exist, and that public sector organizations at all levels hold great potential to take this even further through their purchasing practices.


  1. Clean Energy Canada, Money Talks (
  2. West Coast Climate Forum (