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Closing the gap between decarbonization goals and actions

a downward-trending graph is superimposed over a photo of a polluting factory.
Solving climate change is possible once industries adopt the necessary digital technologies and processes.
  • Decarbonization is defined as disaggregating economic activity (that is, construction and manufacturing) with greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Together, the built environment and manufacturing are responsible for approximately 58% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
  • In its special report on decarbonization, Autodesk has taken a deep dive into actions companies are taking to decarbonize—and digital tools are a requirement.

I believe that climate change is a solvable problem. I know that this is a controversial statement, but it’s true. Almost all of the technological innovations needed to reduce carbon emissions across the global economy already exist today. The real challenge is helping the design, manufacturing, construction, and asset-management industries adopt technologies and processes necessary to deliver the right data to the right decision-makers at the right time. Doing so will address the second challenge: the high costs associated with adopting new innovations. Industries must invest in strategies that reduce these costs—carbon removals, battery storage, Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) databases, and so forth—so they can be easily incorporated by all. 

Historically, the built environment and manufacturing processes yield a high degree of greenhouse gas emissions. Together, they are responsible for roughly 58% of total global emissions per year (about 38% and 20%, respectively). Greenhouse gas emissions lead to increases in temperature associated with climate change that ultimately increase the frequency and severity of climatic events. As folks know all too well, forest fires, hurricanes, typhoons, floods, and the risks associated with increasing temperatures have significant impacts on the lives of all global citizens. When society is not doing well, business doesn’t do well, so it’s in everyone’s interest to prioritize addressing this issue.

A busy construction site with a city skyline in the background.
The built environment is responsible for 38% of total global greenhouse gas emissions.

Autodesk’s customers are designing and making things in the physical world. The design and make industries—including architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) and design and manufacturing (D&M)—are under increasing pressure to “decarbonize.” Decarbonization is essentially the removal of greenhouse gas emissions associated with anything, whether it’s an asset or process.

In construction, this could be calculating embodied carbon in building materials during the design process to make better choices for the life of the asset. In manufacturing, it could be handing tasks to artificial intelligence–powered tools to automate processes, which can speed up time to market, lower energy usage, and reduce errors and waste. Using the power of technology is the most meaningful and cost-effective way to deliver on this. Technology allows designers, manufacturers, construction professionals, and asset owners to measure carbon emissions and make data-driven decisions that improve sustainability at both the project and operational levels. 

Autodesk is facing an unprecedented opportunity to rise to the occasion and serve our customers’ needs, so we decided to dive deep into this issue. The result is the 2023 State of Design & Make Special Edition: Spotlight on Decarbonization, a report that details sustainability insights from more than 600 industry leaders.

Getting in the right mindset

The first important finding in Spotlight on Decarbonization is a significant disconnect between what businesses need to do and what they are able to do today. Eighty-nine percent of companies believe that decarbonization is important to their business. But there’s a sizable gap between the acknowledgment of that need and action on the ground. 

The disconnect is fueled by a lack of awareness about how to use digital tools to measure carbon emissions and how to get started on a decarbonization journey. Nearly 80% of companies said the availability of decarbonization tools is low. And only 47% have a process in place to discover those tools. There’s an awareness problem as well as an implementation challenge.

To begin to bridge this gap, there must be a shift in mindset. There are rewards for companies that choose to prioritize sustainability. They include using sustainability as a competitive differentiator; reducing the costs associated with energy and material usage; and, ultimately, managing the risks associated with inaction. This journey is long and requires buy-in at all levels of the organization. But, really, it starts at the top and should be driven by executive management. 

It’s worth noting that a number of new design and make companies are starting off with the right tools and a low carbon footprint from the get-go. One example is BamCore, a company that manufactures bamboo wall panels to replace traditional wood framing for homes, capitalizing on bamboo’s strength, fast regrowth, and incredible carbon-capture capabilities. 

If BamCore can do it on a shoestring, legacy companies can get there, too.

Leveraging digital tools to do better

People have spent centuries optimizing design and make processes for operational efficiency. These processes are associated with carbon emissions—the costs of which are now deemed too high relative to the benefit. So, today, companies are collectively at the cusp of appropriately unwinding these processes. But, first, they need to have the right data along all phases of project delivery, and they must learn to measure and subsequently manage the carbon associated with these projects. Roughly half of those surveyed in Autodesk’s 2023 State of Design and Make report are using digital tools to begin to deliver sustainable outcomes.

  • 49% of companies use technology to perform lifecycle assessments on every project. 
  • 52% say their company uses digital tools to improve energy efficiency of every project. 
  • 54% use digital tools to reduce waste on projects. 

But many lifecycle-assessment tools are static. They don’t inform decision-making but for one or two touch points along the project delivery phase. The perception that there is low availability for decarbonization tools is really a manifestation of a data interoperability challenge. It goes back to how people design and make things—ultimately based on differentiation and expertise—which results in silos. 

Today, customers have to ship an Autodesk Revit model off to sustainability consultants, who come back and share a static interpretation about the performance of said building. If you’re able to do that analysis in real time and trust that data from a sustainability perspective, you’re able to deliver more sustainable projects and do so much more effectively. But it means that sustainability is everyone’s job: from the designer to the structural, MEP, or value engineer and from the shop lead all the way to project managers and even asset owners. Everyone in the chain must increase their digital fluency around sustainability.

An architect works on a building design on a computer screen.
Sustainability is everyone’s responsibility, from the designer to the asset owner.

These silos further complicate the problem and demonstrate the misaligned incentives that lead to inefficient and unsustainable outcomes. For example, an architect can design an incredibly sustainable building, but a general contractor has different incentives, mainly to build as quickly and efficiently as possible. Given these silos, the contractor doesn’t necessarily have access to all the data embedded in the BIM asset to make it sustainable. Subsequently, the contractor then hands the keys to the asset owner, whose priority is maximizing the economic value of that asset. It’s a waterfall of inefficiency and silos.

An Autodesk customer gave some telling feedback: “The main barrier to using these tools is there is often no data flow between them,” said Frode Tørresdal, head of development, BIM, and structural analysis at Norconsult. “The solution is to have a common data environment—one source where all the data is located—and all the tools would integrate into that database.” Norconsult brings partners and data together with Autodesk Platform Services on its engineering projects to help the company hit sustainability marks. This can both eliminate silos and solve the divergent incentive problem. 

Decarbonization in action

With the right approach and application of digital tools, companies can take advantage of the opportunities presented by designing for sustainability. Investing in low-carbon technologies, incorporating renewable energy sources, and focusing on supply-chain emissions can all result in meaningful improvements to business and to the planet. 

On a project level, it means using tools to iterate through digital modeling to reduce waste and make better design decisions early in the process. Automaker Rivian is a pioneer in this area. Not only does the company produce a fully electric vehicle, but its commitment to a digital design studio is an example of how automotive manufacturing can decarbonize product development. Using Autodesk Alias and VRED, the company’s design and validation process is done with virtual reality models. It connects everyone to one single design for more efficient collaboration and reduces waste by not relying solely on full-scale physical models. Going back to the drawing board is simply a matter of a few clicks, rather than having to dispose of a whole prototype.

As digital tools accelerate toward interoperability and expand to all phases of project delivery, the ability to quantify emissions and subsequent reductions improves significantly. The more digitalized the processes, the better the capabilities to measure, manage, and reduce carbon emissions at all levels. Architecture and engineering consulting firm Sweco saw a need for this capability with its clients. The company developed a tool to help AEC stakeholders make better decisions early in the design phase and have greater carbon transparency. The Carbon Cost Compass (C3) connects to 3D models to allow designers to quantify different material options that reveal both the climate impact and cost to end up with an asset that meets both sustainability and financial goals.

Decarbonization often happens on an individual level, but to make a wide-scale impact, there’s power in numbers. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) is an organization committed to creating a better future by aligning companies to decarbonization strategies. WBCSD is 200 members strong, with companies such as Arcadis, 3M, and Autodesk on board to fulfill the organization’s mission, which states, “To meet the Paris Agreement objectives and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial levels, we must halve emissions from the built environment by 2030 and fully decarbonize it by 2050.”

WSP, an engineering firm out of New Zealand, created its own tool called Carb0nise that it uses in Revit to automate carbon estimates during design. Engineers can make carbon-reduction decisions early on for sustainable outcomes. It’s part of the company’s decarbonization roadmap to reduce carbon emissions 50% by 2030. 

There is a lot of excitement around design and make industries right now and how sustainability will reshape these sectors. Digital transformation across these industries is well underway. Cloud-based platforms will be the biggest game changer in this area, with connected data and workflows that eliminate silos and enable better data flow for more sustainable and efficient project lifecycle and operations. Companies are no longer waiting for the right time to act—they’re forging a path to a better future. Read Autodesk’s Spotlight on Decarbonization report to learn how companies are approaching this and, ultimately, how a sustainability mindset and powerful digital tools can transform your business. 

About the Author

Joe Speicher is the chief sustainability officer at Autodesk. Previous to this role, he was executive director of the Autodesk Foundation, which supports the most impactful people and organizations using design to combat climate change to create a better world.

Profile Photo of Joe Speicher, Autodesk CSO