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Approaching Sustainability: Progress Toward Carbon-Neutrality in Life Sciences

Gul Dusi
Approaching Sustainability: Progress Toward Carbon-Neutrality in Life Sciences

Industries around the world are working to reach carbon neutrality. By reducing greenhouse gas emissions or removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, companies can effectively make up for the emissions they produce elsewhere. Think of it like planting a tree in one place for every tree you cut down elsewhere. In theory, if you plant as many trees as you cut down, you will reach “net-zero carbon” and the ecosystem will remove carbon at its normal rate, creating an overall drop in global greenhouse gasses.

Of course, carbon reduction strategies are much more complex and flexible than just counting trees. Effectively there are two main strategies for lowering carbon output: directly reducing carbon output by implementing green best practices and technologies, or by investing in carbon offsets, which compensate for the emissions a company creates by reducing emissions commensurately elsewhere. Using various combinations of these strategies, government and industry leaders hope to reach global net-zero emissions by 2050.

Important goals

This goal isn’t aggressive enough for some organizations, thatwho are shooting for carbon neutrality by 2030. This ambitious timing is unsurprising, especially as the scale of the problem can be sobering. Considering that annual global emissions reached 36 gigatons (Gt) in 2020, and rose by 6% in 2021 to the highest ever level of 36.3 billion tons, this urgency may seem too incremental for some.

World governments have mandated or incentivized carbon reduction goals that will help conform with the Paris Climate Accords. In the United States, the Federal Sustainability Plan set a range of targets toward reducing national greenhouse emissions by up to 52 percent and limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030.

Net-zero emissions goals

Major life sciences companies have been ambitious when it comes to meeting these goals. Here are just a few examples:

  • By 2030, Eli Lilly and Co. aims to be carbon neutral, with 100% renewable electricity and enhanced full value-chain emissions by 2050
  • Merck will be carbon neutral across its operations by 2025, with a 30% reduction in value-chain emissions by 2030
  • Johnson & Johnson aims to obtain 100% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025, and to reach net-zero emissions by 2050
  • Pfizer plans to be carbon neutral by 2030, with a 46% reduction in absolute emissions and 100% renewable energy procurement for indirect emissions

Facilities first

One of the key ways in which many industries — life sciences very much included — must approach carbon goals is through changing their facilities. Buildings represent 39% of global greenhouse gas emissions: 28% in operational emissions and 11% in building materials and construction.

Global building floorspace is projected to double by 2060, but only 3% of new construction investment is green and efficient, and the renovation rate for existing structures is barely 1%, less than a third of the rate needed to meet the Paris climate goals. To keep from locking in decades of carbon-heavy construction, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies must either retrofit their existing workspaces or construct new ones with carbon neutrality in mind.

Carbon neutrality for new or retrofitted buildings should involve four key steps: decarbonization, renewable energy, energy efficiency, and digitalization. Each of these approaches has its own costs and benefits which life sciences leaders must evaluate when planning their green facilities.

Four steps explained

A decarbonized facility is built with low-carbon, reused, or recycled materials. Such a location does not use fossil fuels for heating, and minimizes the use of refrigerants. Because concrete and steel are the biggest sources of carbon in a building project, repurposing an existing facility requires less carbon. Retrofitting an existing space is thus far more carbon neutral than demolishing and building a new facility. Although difficult and time-consuming, retrofitting reduces costs and carbon alike, making reuse the better choice.

As stated, one important element of achieving carbon neutrality, is the utilization of renewable energy resources for buildings. Renewable or green energy includes photovoltaic solar panels, passive solar heating and daylighting, geothermal energy for direct heat or electricity, and bioenergy such as biogas, as well as wind and hydroelectric sources. Renewables do come with moderate to significant costs, as recent studies show an upfront price increase to build infrastructure that facilitates renewable energy. Furthermore, in the United States, state grids can sometimes manifest weakened output and even blackouts.

Energy efficiency can be implemented in a number of ways. Facilities close to public transit can reduce emissions from commuting, while repurposing existing structures can cut down on construction-related emissions, as can making new buildings as small as possible, with large windows to make best use of natural light. High-quality HVAC systems with minimal leaks, regular air filter changes, and clean air ducts in the right places can also make cooling and heating systems much more efficient, as can buildings using insulated concrete.

Finally, digitalization is the development of “smart” buildings that automate and regulate systems for optimized efficiency. Using advanced sensors, controls, data analytics, and energy optimization, these facilities control appliances, and utilities to be more reliable and make the best use of resources, such as by adjusting heating usage at times of high sunlight or turning lights on and off in rooms based on usage or the presence of staff.

The need for Project Controls and Owners Project Management services

All these options seem like a lot to juggle, and they are. Rising demand for life sciences workspaces mean biotech and pharma companies will be under pressure to expand their physical footprint while reducing their carbon footprint. With many different ways to approach carbon neutrality and a maze of regulations, incentives, and materials procurement options available, life sciences leaders are well advised to seek out Project Management and Project Controls consultants who specialize in environmentally friendly building practices.

Project Management and Project Controls specialists are experts in interfacing between clients and contractors, making sure that building projects are planned correctly from the very start. These consultants understand the ins and outs of any construction project and can advise their clients on how best to achieve their carbon reduction goals in both new and retrofitted facilities. They can also recommend and acquire the best environmentally friendly materials — from insulated concrete to recycled wood to modular construction — and at the best prices.

Net-zero emissions is a hugely important goal for businesses around the world, but it comes with challenges and risks. Integrating renewable energy into building plans does increase budgets, and there’s no way of knowing when carbon-neutral building costs will level out. The biotech industry may not be ready for all-electric equipment, especially if state grids can still cause blackouts and are not green themselves. With the right project controls specialist, life sciences companies can ensure their construction and renovation projects are finished on time and within budget, while also ensuring the continued prosperity of our ecosystem.

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