A Sighting of Bigfoot

Recently, I have received questions about carbon content and carbon footprints associated with roofing. Before we can track down the source of those footprints we need to know what we’re searching for.

The technical definition of a carbon footprint is that it is a measure of the amount of carbon dioxide produced by a person, company, business or country over a given time. A more generic definition is that it is a measure of the impact human activities have on the environment based on the greenhouse gases produced. This second definition includes more than just carbon dioxide produced.

A primary carbon footprint considers the most direct impacts, like the use of a car or airplane. A secondary carbon footprint looks more at the entire lifecycle of activities or processes, such as with the production of a product. There are lots of theories as to how and what to measure to determine an individual carbon footprint. Numerous calculators attempt to put a numerical value to a product’s or process’ carbon footprint, but there is no single agreed-upon standard. The concept of “cap and trade” is even being debated as a means to controlling carbon footprints.

The cap and trade issue deals with controls placed on total carbon dioxide emissions. Contrary to what many people think, cap and trade is not a policy for regulating Wall Street or providing health care. A Rasmussen poll found that 76% of Americans have no clue what cap and trade means. Yet, the system, if implemented, is essentially a tax that could have broad implications for the costs of generating electricity or producing goods and services. With this scheme, carbon emissions are limited or capped and an organization is allocated an allowance for the amount it can emit. Then, companies buy and sell capacity based on whether they are emitting more or less than their quota. This could have the effect of shifting power plants from using coal, an abundant resource in the U.S., to natural gas to generate electricity.

Natural gas is the main fossil fuel source for producing ethylene used in making the vinyl chloride monomer (VCM). VCM is a key component in polyvinyl chloride (PVC or vinyl). Increases in natural gas demand will increase its price and increase costs to producers of vinyl products, including roofing and other construction components.

This is a very complex interconnected issue that is being hotly debated. There will no doubt continue to be many changes to environmental regulations in the near future. Construction specifiers are anticipating these changes and are beginning to include them in their design considerations. Construction and facility management professionals should stay informed to be able to respond appropriately.