Carbon footprint standards can lead to green infrastructure


Global, Countries and cCompanies are racing towards carbon neutrality, with some experts already discussing the need to eventually achieve carbon negativity.

Image source: Mikko Raskinen / Aalto University.

While a carbon footprint statement is used on construction projects to facilitate the selection of products for low carbon buildings, standards for green elements like plants, bushes and soil are still pending.

Now, a new study led by Aalto University is the first attempt to find out how green infrastructure can serve as a resource for cities to achieve carbon neutrality. The study was carried out in collaboration with the Natural Resources Institute of Finland (Luke) and the University of Helsinki.

The study mapped the life cycle stages of soil, mulching and crops to identify the key considerations needed to set standards for products commonly used in urban green spaces.

Green infrastructure is a building block of cities whose products have not yet been systematically examined for their carbon storage potential. We are now beginning to better understand the great importance of these nature-based solutions. Standards for these commonly used products would not only help us plan our cities better, they would also help us achieve carbon neutrality.

Matti Kuittinen, Associate Professor, Aalto University

In their analysis, the researchers followed the prevailing carbon footprint standards that are widely used in the construction sector. Such standards would have to be developed if they are to be used in green infrastructure.

To do this, the team compared the carbon fluxes in plants, mulches and soils over their lifespan. They also tried to convert these carbon fluxes into the standardized reporting format for traditional building products.

One of the biggest challenges in assessing the carbon storage potential of plants is that the product you buy changes over time. If you install 50 bricks in a building and remove them in a decade, you still have 50 bricks. If you plant 20 seedlings, you can have 30 large bushes in ten years thanks to growth and spreading.”

Matti Kuittinen, Associate Professor, Aalto University

The suggestions made in this study form a solid basis for the design of regional and global – for example the European Union – standards for green infrastructure. The aim of the study is to prove the demands of carbon storage and ultimately to develop a tool that enables landscape designers to plan new areas or to renovate existing urban spaces.

The proposals are specifically relevant to nations and regions such as the Nordic countries where urban landscapes have been conventionally integrated into nature, but these regions can also support other areas in meeting their carbon targets.

Cities must take all possible measures to achieve carbon neutrality. The advantage of green infrastructure is that once we know its carbon footprint, no new, expensive technology is required; It’s a simple, far-reaching solution that can make real impact. This is an area that requires real attention from decision-makers in the European Union and elsewhere.

Matti Kuittinen, Associate Professor, Aalto University

The team from Aalto University is now starting its field tests together with consortium partners of the Co-Carbon project to find out the exact carbon sequestration potential of plants in different growth stages. While the carbon storage potential of trees is widely known, the study aims to be the first to assess the potential of plants and shrubs – elements commonly used in urban landscaping.

Luke researchers are also developing a tool to visualize changes in soil and plant carbon storage at the regional level due to land use changes. A tool like this can enable planners to use and maintain the existing carbon storage in soils and plants in a targeted manner.

The open access study was published in International journal for life cycle assessment.

Journal reference:

Kuittinen, M., et al. (2021) Environmental product declarations for plants and soils: How can the carbon uptake in landscaping and construction be quantified? The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment.



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