The Rise of Biobased Construction Materials & How Riverse certifies carbon credits for projects in this sector

March 7, 2024



Carbon footprint
Grégoire Guirauden

Grégoire Guirauden

Chief Operations Officer

In recent years, a growing awareness of environmental issues has led to a significant shift in various industries, with the construction sector standing at the forefront of this green revolution. Traditionally, buildings have been silent contributors to the world's environmental issues, responsible for a staggering 21% of global greenhouse gas emissions. (source : Cabeza, L. F., Q. Bai, P. Bertoldi, J.M. Kihila, A.F.P. Lucena, É. Mata, S. Mirasgedis, A. Novikova, Y. Saheb, 2022: Buildings. In IPCC, 2022)

Let’s keep in mind that these emissions are split between the operational life of the building and the embodied emissions from materials used in construction.

Surprisingly, in Europe alone, the embodied emissions contribute to 5-12% of each country's national greenhouse gases, with cement and steel, the most commonly used materials, being the main culprits due to their energy-intensive production processes. (Source: European Commission, Buildings and construction. Accessed October 2023)

But what if we could change the narrative?  
Let’s dive into biobased construction materials — and shed the light on the meticulous steps involved in obtaining carbon credits.

Biobased Construction Materials: Pioneering Sustainable Construction

Biobased construction materials are not just another alternative; they represent a paradigm shift in building design and construction. Imagine constructing homes and buildings with materials that are part of the carbon solution, not the problem !

These materials derive from organic, renewable sources such as plants, trees, and agricultural byproducts. These resources absorb carbon during their growth phase, effectively reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions. Biobased construction materials are also transformed into a variety of construction materials that have less energy manufacturing processes - ranging from conventional options like timber to innovative solutions like mycelium insulation and cellulose nanocrystals. Popular biobased products in construction include wood framing, wood panels, hempcrete, and various forms of thermal insulation.

And there's more — if a biobased product is designed to last over a hundred years,  its biogenic content qualifies for carbon removal credits. Conversely, if the product's lifespan is under 100 years, it still contributes to environmental benefits through avoidance credits due to its lower environmental impact compared to traditional materials.The shift towards biobased construction materials must be more than a trend; it's a necessary evolution in building practices that have only just began.

Europe's Journey Towards Biobased Construction Material Adoption

Despite the clear environmental benefits, the adoption of biobased construction materials in Europe is still in its infancy. In France, only about 10% of homes are built with wood, and in the Netherlands, wood-based construction barely touches 2%. These numbers reflect a broader hesitation, influenced by regional preferences, material availability, and traditional construction practices.

However, this hesitancy also represents an opportunity - and need  - for change. Policymakers, builders, and consumers alike have a role to play in supporting this transition. Incentives such as carbon credits can accelerate the adoption of biobased materials, making sustainable construction practices more accessible and appealing.

Diving into Riverse Standard's Certification Path for Biobased Construction Materials for carbon credit

The Riverse Carbon Credit Standard is at the forefront of European carbon crediting, emphasizing support for impactful greentech projects within the industrial sector. Addressing concerns over inaccurate measurements and misinformation, Riverse prioritizes precise and transparent greenhouse gas emissions assessment. It has developed a robust methodology, enforced by mandatory guidelines for project certification, tailored to various industries based on rigorous scientific principles and sector-specific criteria.

5 key steps that trike a balance between rigorous scientific methodology and efficiency, ensuring project developers experience a thorough yet streamlined certification journey.

Discover the 5 five steps detailed
here & Find the Standard Rules here.

last 3 steps for biobased construction material carbon credit eligibility

Riverse’s 14 Eligibilty Criteria to issue carbon credits from biobased construction materials

In the initial Eligibility step, the Riverse Standard meticulously defines 14 criteria tailored for each sector.

The following 14 criteria for Biobased Construction Materials project are measured through certified proof the project holders must share. Criteria that are based on:

1/ Measurability : Projects must prove that they avoid GHG emissions based on a comparative life cycle assessment (LCA - see in section below).

2/ Real :  Projects must prove that they: exist and operate as claimed, or are being developed and will soon begin operations.

3/ Additionality : All projects must demonstrate their Regulatory Additionality, plus either financial or prevalence additionality.

Regulatory Additionality :  Projects must demonstrate that their activities are not already required by law to qualify for carbon credits. The Riverse team conducts a high-level regulatory analysis, but projects must verify the absence of local mandates. While the EU promotes biobased construction through policies like the EPBD and the Circular Economy Action Plan, and France encourages sustainable practices through RE2020 and mandates the use of biobased materials in public projects from 2030, none of these regulations enforce biobased construction directly.

Financial Additionality : Biobased construction projects face financial challenges due to higher material costs. They must show financial necessity to qualify for carbon credit funding. This can be demonstrated through audited financial statements indicating a loss, detailed business plans showing the need for funding to enhance technology, or evidence that their products are costlier than traditional materials, with intentions to use carbon credit funds to lower prices.

Prevalence Additionality : The project may prove that it is currently far from becoming norm/ market practice. If using prevalence additionality, projects must prove that funding from carbon credits will go towards subsidizing or improving the technology to increase its adoption. Funding can not enrich the project.

4/ Permanence in Biobased Construction for Carbon Credits:Permanence is crucial for biobased construction projects seeking carbon removal credits. Materials expected to last 100 years or more qualify for these credits, with lifespans typically documented in Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). For composite materials, the lifespan of the entire product is considered, despite individual components possibly having longer lifetimes. However, exceptions for components expected to be reused or recycled can be made with proper justification.

5/ Unicity : Riverse ensures that carbon credits are only be counted once. To prevent this, they must be :

  1. Unique and not registered in multiple systems, ensured by a signed agreement with a unicity clause between Riverse and the Project Developer.
  2. Not claimed simultaneously by the project and its biomass suppliers, verified by letters from suppliers representing over 20% of the supply.
  3. Not claimed by both the project and the end-users, clarified through marketing communications stating that carbon credits are exclusively managed in the Riverse registry and users cannot claim credits or brand the product as carbon-negative.

6/ Co-benefits : According to the Riverse Standard Rules, projects must provide at least 2 co-benefits from the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

7/ Substitution : Projects must validate their products as legitimate substitutes for conventional options, considering functionality, price-quality ratio, and usage conditions. Specifically, biobased construction materials must match the performance and lifespan of the alternatives they replace. This includes factors like energy efficiency and mechanical resistance. If there are differences in service life, these are considered in the life cycle assessment (LCA). Performance disparities leading to worse outcomes result in additional credits being allocated to offset these shortcomings, determined through tests and Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs).

8/ Environmental & social do no harm : Projects must demonstrate that they do not cause significant environmental or social harm. They are required to manage and document risks listed in a specified table, with the Riverse team assessing the likelihood and severity of each. High-risk issues may necessitate additional evidence from the developer. This is crucial for projects using significant wood or timber, which must verify sustainable forest management certifications. The life cycle assessment approach ensures that the climate impacts of these risks are included in the overall GHG emissions and carbon credit calculations.

9/ Leakage : Projects should ensure that their GHG emissions reductions are not offset by transferring conventional materials to other locations where they might cause increased emissions. While this risk is beyond Riverse's direct control, it is acknowledged. Additionally, the risk of biomass inputs being sourced from distant areas is managed by including the transport impacts in the life cycle assessment (LCA) for accurate carbon credit calculation.

10/ Rebound effects : The Riverse team evaluates sector-wide rebound effects, where enhancements in biobased construction materials' efficiency and sustainability might lead to greater overall consumption of building materials. This could counteract initial environmental benefits if the reduced impacts and positive reputation of biobased materials accelerate building renewals before the end of their expected lifetimes.

11/ Technology Readiness Level : Projects must demonstrate a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of 6 or above, indicating the technology has been tested in a relevant environment. For operational biobased construction material projects, proof may include sales receipts or client contracts, showing a TRL of 9. Projects under development can provide similar evidence during verification or examples of successful use elsewhere. Innovative projects may use results from preliminary research or prototypes as proof.

12/ Targets alignment : Biobased construction materials projects in the construction and housing sectors must demonstrate a minimum 45% reduction in GHG emissions compared to a baseline scenario, verified through a comparative life cycle assessment.

13/ Minimum impact : Projects need to justify a minimum of 1000 tCO2eq avoided or removed over a five-year crediting period, verified through a comparative life cycle assessment.

14/ Independently validated :  The project's Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), Detailed Project Description (DPD), and Monitoring Plan must undergo an audit by an independent third-party auditor.

Carbon credit quantification: Comparative Lifecycle Assessment of Biobased Construction materials

A comparative life cycle assessment (LCA) is essential for determining the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions avoided by a project compared to a standard, business-as-usual scenario. This evaluation includes measuring the carbon sequestered by biobased materials for potential carbon removal credits.The LCA, guided by Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) methodologies, requires specifying a functional unit to compare the project with the baseline scenario accurately. This could be, for example, the impact of 1 m² of flooring over 50 years. Avoided emissions or carbon removals are then calculated for this unit, drawing on data from EPDs or similar studies, to quantify the annual environmental benefits based on the volume of materials used.

Baseline scenario of biobased construction materials

In a comparative LCA, the baseline scenario depicts what would happen without the project, serving as a point of comparison for environmental impacts.For biobased construction, this typically involves comparing the project's materials against standard materials or the market average. Selection criteria include functional equivalence, lifespan, and performance features like energy efficiency and strength. Differences in lifespan or performance between the project and baseline materials lead to adjustments in LCA calculations and, if necessary, the allocation of additional credits to the project.

Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) serve as the primary data source for evaluating the environmental performance of products in both project and baseline scenarios. If an EPD is not available, a similar document that contains these details, is independently verified, and adheres to ISO 14025 standards can be used as an alternative.

System Boundary of biobased construction materials

The comparative LCA covers cradle-to-grave impacts for both project and baseline materials, aligning with EN 15804 standards across modules A, B, C, and D. If module D data is missing, its impacts can be excluded for consistency between scenarios. The analysis focuses solely on the material's lifecycle, not the entire building, meaning operational energy only relates to the material itself. In biobased materials, carbon neutrality is often shown in module A (Production), with the -1/+1 approach handling biogenic carbon during production and end-of-life phases, typically resulting in lower production impacts due to simpler biomass processing.

System Boundary graph of biobased construction materials

Biogenic carbon and carbon removal

Biobased construction materials with a lifespan of 100 years or more, as indicated by their Environmental Product Declaration (EPD), are eligible for carbon removal credits.The biogenic carbon content, transformed into CO2 equivalents, is guided by EN 15804 and EN 16449 standards and accounted for using the -1/+1 method in EPDs. To calculate accurate carbon credits, it's crucial to prevent double-counting by reallocating the carbon uptake from the production phase to a dedicated Removal module. Products with a Reference Service Lifetime (RSL) under 100 years may still qualify for credits if they can be recycled or reused to meet the century mark, or if biobased components within composite materials can be similarly extended in use.

Time to invest in Biobased Construction Materials through carbon credits.

Today, Riverse is proud to have thoroughly certified 3 biobased construction material projects, avoiding 3,737t CO2 per year.

As you can see, it’s a meticulous measurement that seems more from frightening than what it really is. All these steps are key to deliver a significant and quantifiable contribution to carbon avoidance, with precision in impact assessment.

At Riverse, we are dedicated to measuring impact, striving to shape the world’s destiny.

Explore the intricacies of our methodology in-depth by visiting our detailed methodology.

Unlocking carbon credits with Riverse is not just a process; it's a journey towards a sustainable future !