The future is going to be carbon-free, so is the construction industry

Thanks to the recent COP26, the focus on a carbon-free future has been intense this November. The UN Climate Change Conference created headlines for many different reasons and got people talking about the potential for a greener future than we have today. This is something that is particularly relevant to the construction sector, which bears the responsibility for a large volume of emissions. However, carbon-free construction is already on the horizon – and being implemented in some locations. So, the future really is carbon-free, in the constructions industry as well as the wider world.

The impact of COP26

The 26th summit took place in Glasgow this year and brought together heads of state and climate experts from all over the world. The focus was, in particular, on the progress that may have been made since the last COP21, which was when the Paris Agreement set out to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C. The UK construction sector’s contribution to this came under scrutiny, including the ways in which more of an impact could be made when it comes to creating a carbon-free future. These include overcoming skills gaps – which, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research, could make it more difficult to reach the current net-zero targets – as well as reviewing the way that planning is approached so that there is more emphasis on sustainable building. The cement industry is also a big focus of reform because it contributes so significantly to the process of carbon generation.

Why does it matter so much in construction?

40% of global carbon emissions come from building and construction. Urbanisation is continuing at a blistering rate all across the world, which means that the construction boom isn’t likely to relent any time soon. In fact, in the next 30 years, another 2.5 billion people will arrive in cities looking for places to live and work. Almost two-thirds of the buildings that we’re going to need to accommodate this by 2050 have yet to be built. Making changes to construction could have a big impact on global emissions targets because of the amount that the industry currently contributes. For example, on its own, cement accounts for 8% of global CO2 emissions – using timber instead of concrete for framing would achieve a 26.5% reduction in the global warming potential of a building.

Establishing a framework for a carbon-free construction industry

There is currently no blueprint that ties together all the various options that could be employed in order to create a carbon-free construction sector for the future. However, there are a number of vital components that will need to be taken into account to make this happen. These include:

  •  Measuring the carbon footprint of buildings being constructed and taking steps to reduce the emissions that are revealed. This is going to be vital to meeting the goals set by the Paris Agreement in 2015 because 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.
  • Acknowledging the issue of embodied emissions. Half of all emissions from buildings are embodied within them i.e. come from the construction process itself and the manufacture of materials that are used in that process. Six materials – with concrete at the top of the list – are responsible for generating 70% of embodied emissions. When tackling the problem of emissions in general it’s now crucial that embodied emissions are part of the calculations if targets are to be achieved.
  • Practical steps to tackle embodied emissions. This could include a number of measures such as repurposing existing buildings rather than commissioning new construction, utilising and fitting out existing construction, only building where absolutely necessary and adopting a no-waste approach that revolves around prefabricated components, reusing and recycling materials and more sustainable and efficient construction practices.

When is a carbon-free construction sector likely to be a reality?

There is no set date for this huge transition on a national or sector-wide level. However, the way that individual organisations have begun to integrate this is telling in terms of what can be achieved. The National Grid, for example, has made a commitment to achieving carbon-neutral construction for its projects that are focused on building and reinforcing its network by 2025/6. This has involved looking at low-carbon concrete, steel and aluminium solutions and establishing working groups on making progress in terms of the supply chain that supports the National Grid.
Each construction project will need to be evaluated in terms of what can be done to make it carbon-free. There are a number of steps that this could involve, including:

  • Reducing the carbon in the materials that are used for the project. For example, decarbonising the manufacture of these materials could make a big difference. Sustainable sourcing also creates more options by substituting more sustainable materials that use and emit less carbon.
  • Making carbon-free materials and more sustainable processes the mainstream choice. As more and more contractors and designers start demanding low carbon products these are likely to become easier to obtain and also cheaper.
  • Innovation across the sector. Each organisation will need to focus on integrating innovation into its own business model to make a carbon-free future happen – as well as challenging supply chain partners to do the same.

Many projects have already been established

You don’t have to look far to find countries where carbon-free construction is already being made a reality. For example, in Oslo, the goal is for all city-owned construction machinery and construction sites to operate with zero emissions by 2025. It’s also vital to note just how much influence businesses in construction can have on sectors generally, for example by influencing other stakeholders, such as real estate partners, to aspire to meet carbon-free standards too.

The future of the world is going to be carbon-free – it has to be if the planet is going to survive. An industry like construction has a huge contribution to make in terms of bringing this objective to life.

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