What does carbon neutral mean?
Tackling carbon emissions is a key goal for the building and construction sector. Becoming ‘carbon neutral’ is an objective for every sector of the economy today and has been highlighted as a necessity during events such as COP26. The ‘Race to Zero’ is now well underway with private businesses and the government working together to help make this happen. But what does it mean?
Carbon emissions and construction
‘Carbon neutral’ is essentially the balance between emitting carbon and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. In the construction sector, carbon emissions tend to either be embodied or operational carbon emissions, both of which need to be dealt with to secure a net-zero goal. Embodied carbon emissions are those that are generated by building materials and products, at every stage from production to demolition and disposal. Operational carbon emissions are those that come from running the building once it is finished, including heating and hot water generation. Achieving net carbon zero will mean limiting all of these emissions to a level that is compatible with a more sustainable future.
Where can the change make a big difference?
The design has a big part to play in whether or not these standards can be met. For example, looking at how to minimise the number of materials used and how to facilitate future re-use. Reusing, remodelling and retrofitting existing buildings is key to this. There are also other ways that individual businesses can have an impact on how soon we get to carbon neutral:
- Reducing construction material related emissions. Around 28% of the total global emissions from the building and construction sector relate to materials. Material efficiency and sustainability are key factors here.
- Decarbonising heating in buildings. More efficient use of energy to generate heat is one of the best options for decarbonising heating in buildings. For example, the use of heat pumps can make a big difference to many projects.
- Using light and daylight better. Around 30% of the energy used in commercial buildings is wasted and changing this is critical to reducing energy consumption. Making better use of daylight and smarter choices about lighting are key steps towards to a more sustainable building.
- A different approach to ventilation. Especially post-COVID we know that ventilation is a vital part of daily health for human occupation of buildings. There are many more carbon-neutral options available to provide this, including Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery systems.
- Renewable energy. Where buildings can meet a proportion of their own energy needs they will become significantly more sustainable. Renewable energy, such as solar panels, can provide this for each construction.
- Minimising waste. Every year in the UK we produce 60 football pitches-worth of waste in the construction sector alone. This fills up landfills and can also be costly. The alternative is minimising waste by focusing on reuse and recycling so that very little construction waste has to go to landfills.
Carbon neutral is a realistic goal for the construction sector and these are just some of the ways we can get started.