How to lower the carbon footprint of the construction industry

With all eyes on COP26 this November there has been an emphasis on what every industry can do to help reach net carbon zero goals. The construction sector has the potential to make a big difference to the figures, as it currently accounts for roughly 38% of global emissions. With buildings equivalent to the size of Paris being constructed every week there is an increasing need to lower the carbon footprint across the industry in order to make ongoing sustainable change.

No net-zero global standard

Currently, the global construction sector has not defined a net-zero global standard. For any building to fall under this definition it would need to avoid creating any new greenhouse gases, either during the process of construction or demolition. In order to reach the goals set by the Paris Agreement in 2015, the 14 gigatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions generated every year by the building industry will need to be halved by 2030 and reduced to net-zero by 2050. Measuring the carbon footprint of buildings that are being constructed – and taking steps to reduce emissions generated as a result – is going to have a big role to play in that.

Tackling embodied emissions

Although the construction sector is responsible for a huge volume of buildings going up every week, one new report suggests that less than 1% of those buildings is being assessed to establish carbon footprint. The lack of information and insight within the industry is causing real issues, not just for the sustainability of the sector as a whole but also global emissions targets. A new report has found that half of all emissions from buildings are embodied within them i.e. they come from the construction process itself and the manufacture of materials that are used in that process. 70% of those embodied emissions are being generated by just six materials, of which cement is likely to be the biggest offender.

A strategy for tackling embodied emissions

Currently, many construction projects are run blind when it comes to the carbon emissions that are being generated. Some have compared the shift that needs to happen to the financial implications of a project – no sensible construction firm would go ahead without a clear idea of how much it would cost financially and the same approach now needs to be applied to carbon too. With clarity on carbon emissions from each project it would then be possible to apply a strategy that could include some or all of the following:

  •  Repurposing and refurbishing existing buildings rather than creating new
  • Focusing on utilising and fitting out existing construction and only building where absolutely necessary
  • Reusing materials and switching to low carbon materials and products
  • Investing in more efficient building, including minimising design loads and using efficient forms and grids
  • Switching to a no-waste approach – using prefabricated components, reusing and recycling materials and more sustainable and efficient construction practices

Tackling building emissions is one of the most effective ways to lower the carbon footprint of the construction industry.

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