“High containment.” The phrase can induce anxiety even before you’re certain what it means — and the details offer little reassurance. High containment is a category of laboratory where scientists conduct diagnostics or research on very high mortality pathogens, conditions that necessitate elevated levels of scrutiny in operations and testing. Safe handling of those viruses or pathogens is a matter of genuine life or death, which means there’s little leeway to radically change processes and procedures to conform to environmental standards.
Cognizant of the need to reduce carbon emissions, one such lab, a WSP client, “is constantly evolving, being more efficient and looking at ways to reduce water and energy consumption,” says Leslie Gartner, senior VP of science and technology
design, based in Atlanta. “But the number one criterion there is not energy efficiency. It’s containment.”
What happens when the march toward net-zero runs headlong into human activity that benefits health, welfare and conditions on Earth? That question is anything but hypothetical in scientific laboratories, which present some of the most daunting challenges to decarbonization. The nature of research and development conducted in labs can pit climate obligations against competing imperatives, from finding cures for deadly diseases to inventing materials that neutralize pollutants or reverse environmental damage.
In those scenarios, how can we reconcile conflicting priorities so that net-zero targets and the need for continued scientific and medical advances don’t work against one another?
Why labs are so difficult to decarbonize
Finding the answer begins with understanding the sources of greenhouse gas emissions in laboratories and why managing those sources in a lab is different from managing them in any other commercial building.
To begin, there’s the embodied carbon in the building’s construction and component materials – labs typically use large amounts of concrete, steel and glass. While alternatives such as timber are increasingly used in other kinds of buildings, lab environments need to remain sterile, cannot be subject to fluctuations in humidity or temperature, and must adhere to many other conditions that can be difficult to achieve without these carbon-intensive materials.
There’s also the matter of operational carbon, which looms especially large in labs that run 24/7 and must meet strict scientific protocols. The largest producers of emissions are the energy used to heat and cool the facility, and to power lab equipment and on-site waste disposal systems. An additional source of greenhouse gas emissions are leaks from refrigeration systems — which, although used in small volumes, have a disproportionate impact on global warming.