Decarbonizing the Built Environment

YSE scientists contributed to a new United Nations report that lays out an ambitious path to decarbonize the building sector, which is responsible for more than one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Slashing emissions in this industry is key to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius set by the Paris Agreement and achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century.

Barbara Reck, senior research scientist at YSE, was one of the five lead authors of the report, which calls for a three-pronged approach — “Avoid, Shift, Improve” — to reduce embodied carbon emissions from the production and deployment of building materials such as cement, steel, aluminum, timber, and biomass. The report, “Building materials and the climate: Constructing a new future,” was published by the UN Environment Programme and the Yale Center for Ecosystems + Architecture under the lead of CEA Founding Director Anna Dyson.

Reck’s chapter focuses on decarbonizing six major conventional building materials, including concrete, steel, and aluminum, which are the three largest sources of embodied carbon in the building sector. “Decarbonizing building materials requires a combination of better production technologies, access to low-carbon energy, design for circularity, and material efficiency measures that include lifetime extension and higher efficiencies in manufacturing and recycling,” Reck says.

Yao contributed to a section on the potential of mass timber as an alternative to concrete and steel. Studies have found that substituting mass timber could reduce global CO2 emissions between 14-31%. 

YSE PhD candidate Aishwarya Iyer worked on a case study on India, where the country’s building sector is expected to grow by 20 million square meters between 2015-2030. Iyer says it is important that a diversity of building types is considered when assessing material and energy demand in low- and middle-income countries. The case study authors recommend that the government enact and enforce policies that require companies to use recycled materials and an industry shift to bio-based materials, among other pathways to decarbonization.


Barbara Reck

Senior Research Scientist

More News in Brief

Jaye Wilson Honored with Rising Black Scientist Award

Through her research, YSE student and National Science Foundation graduate research fellow Jaye Wilson aims to improve recycling systems to increase yield for high-value products and help industries develop more sustainable business practices. She shared her scientific goals and how her family, community, and STEM experiences sparked her interest in the field in the essay “Resilient wings, tangible impact: My journey from chrysalis to change-maker in STEM,” which earned her a Rising Black Scientists Award.

“The RBSA is a deeply personal achievement that represents a collective aim for a future where diversity in thought and background is not just recognized but celebrated as the bedrock of academic and societal advancement,” Wilson said. “For me, it is a beacon of encouragement to continue being a restorative force in my field, fostering creativity and innovative thinking.”

The award, first established in 2020 and given by Cell Press, Cell Signaling Technology (CST), and the Elsevier Foundation, provides funds to support professional development for talented and motivated Black Scientists. Winners have their essays published in iScience and receive $10,000 to support their research as well as a $500 travel grant.

“Through their stories and accomplishments, this year’s winners of the Rising Black Scientists Awards are examples of excellence to us all,” said John Pham, editor-in-chief of Cell. “My colleagues and I at Cell Press are inspired by them, and we are proud to be sharing their stories.”

Wilson and her fellow honorees, Kevin Brown Jr. of California State University San Marcos; Senegal Mabry of Cornell University; and Akorfa Dagadu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, were chosen from more than 350 applicants from across the life, health, physical, and earth, environmental, and data sciences.

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Jaye Wilson

Saving Tropical Forests

About 60% of the world’s tropical forests, which store 25% of the world’s total carbon, are degrading, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society. Less than half remain at high integrity. At the 30th annual International Society of Tropical Foresters conference held at YSE’s Kroon Hall February 2-3, conservationists examined the drivers of deforestation, how carbon and diversity markets can sustain them, and progress in protecting them.

At the first day of the conference, which convened academics, practitioners, policy makers and community leaders from around the world, Marthe Tollenaar, ESG director at SAIL Ventures, a boutique investment firm based in The Hauge and Sao Paulo, noted how &Green Fund is helping to create returns on biodiversity credits, which she said are as attractive as conventional investments. Currently, she said, companies fund credits through their foundations instead of integrating them into their balance sheets and anticipating a return on investment.

While deforestation has slowed in the Amazon under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s presidency, Ane Alencar, science director for IPAM, a research based environmental NGO in Brazil, said that more than half of deforestation occurred on public lands in 2021-2022 where forest clearance went unpunished. She said that land tenure, not agriculture is the biggest driver of clearing forests. In Indonesia, which has the largest expanse of rainforests in Asia, a drop in palm oil prices may have been a larger factor in slowing deforestation than government regulation, increased land security, sustainability efforts, and corporate commitments to conservation, said Kimberley Carlson, a land systems scientist and associate professor at New York University.

The Yale chapter of ISTF was established in 1992 and is housed at The Forest School at YSE. The annual conference is the longest running student-led conference at Yale.

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ISTF 2024 Conference

Plant-Animal Impact on Amazon's Degrading Forests

In the agricultural frontier between Amazonia, which covers about 40% of the South American continent, and Cerrado in the South American savannas, climate change, defaunation, and fragmentation are degrading forests.  One factor in the types of forests that will survive these threats is the interaction between animals and plants. A YSE-led team of scientists was awarded a $2.45 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study to these critical plant-animal interactions and how they impact the resilience of tropical forests.

As part of the study, the team, which includes Paulo Brando, associate professor of ecosystem carbon capture; Liza Comita, professor of Tropical Forest Ecology and co-director of the Yale Center for Natural Carbon Capture; Craig Brodersen, professor of plant physiological ecology; and scientists from 13 institutions, will produce Amazon-wide modeling projections of how fragmentation and defaunation may impact the future trajectory of forests in the region.

The Amazon, home to 25% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, has already lost about 20% of its original area.

“If the animals were to disappear from tropical forests, how would that shape the future of those forests, as well as their capacity to provide key ecosystem services such as carbon storage and water cycling?” Brando said.

The findings of the study will have broader implications, including better quantification of the services that animal species provide in keeping forests healthy; the consequences of forest collapse on forest-dependent peoples; and how future development in the region may impact the biodiversity of Amazonian forests, Brando said.

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An ant in the rainforest

Animal-plant interactions in the Amazon, which is home to 25% of the world's terrestrial biodiversity, play a significant role in the resilience of the tropical forests.

Paulo Brando

Associate Professor of Ecosystem Carbon Capture