Shifting the Buildings & Construction Sector towards Net Zero

The buildings & construction sector is by far the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. It is therefore a critical sector to decarbonise, if we’re to globally attain Net Zero.
The sector accounts for a staggering 37% of global emissions and 39% of global gross annual CO2 emissions.

High embodied carbon* emissions are by far the greatest contributing factor the industry’s high impact. A reliance on materials with carbon-intensive production cycles like cement, concrete, steel, and aluminum, being a particular issue.

However, despite embodied carbon, being the main culprit, to date, much of the sector's progress has centred around reducing the ‘operational’ carbon emissions of buildings. Whilst solutions for mitigating the sector's embodied carbon emissions are lagging behind.

It is critical that the sector starts to recalibrate its focus. We've listed some key ways the construction industry can start to make progress on its embodied carbon emissions:

Widespread adoption of less carbon-intensive building materials. These maybe be traditional materials like large-scale timber structures or more recent innovations like the start-up Alcemy’s low carbon concrete.

Better project-level understanding of climate targets. Carbon reduction targets must be embedded at all levels of construction projects, as all team members play a contributing role. Too often, carbon reduction is an afterthought or only sits at the corporate-level. Consequently, innovations and new ways of working do not arise.

Allocated budget for low carbon procurement. This is essential as currently procurement of low carbon materials is often more expensive, as the materials are currently not the industry norm. However it is only through supporting suppliers of low carbon materials that eventually the cost will come down.

Standard definitions of, and benchmarks for, net-zero buildings. The current lack of standards and benchmarks means there is a lot of personal interpretation of net zero across the sector. What the concept means for one construction business can look very different from another. Whilst there are various green councils, proprietary ratings organisations and other certification bodies, these can be difficult to navigate and compare, resulting in confusion amongst developers.

Better and more accessible data. Companies can’t manage what they can’t measure, however access to data is, at best, patchy. Sourcing databases with GHG data are therefore important for helping businesses make less carbon intensive procurement decisions and compare emissions between materials.

Sector coordination for revised health and safety regulations. A key blocker for implementing less carbon-intense materials is the strict health and safety regulations that do not allow for any deviation to the 'norm'. To effectively address this challenge and pursue the availability of suitable alternative materials, international action and collaboration must bring together all stakeholders from across the entire building sector's life cycle, to propose regulation amendments which support sustainable procurement without compromising safety.

How is this relevant if I don't work in construction?

It's important to remember that the high carbon activities of the buildings & construction sectors impact any sector which require the constuction of buildings to operate. Hospitals, schools, factories, processing centres, warehouses... these are all buildings that were constructed and required the procurement of building materials with high embodied carbon.

So if you don't work in the construction sector, but do work in a sector which builds or rents any form of building, then use the information above to start understanding how to improve your next site build, or ask the company you rent space what they are doing to reduce embodied carbon across their current and future portfolio.

Further Resources:

UK Green Building Council

World Green Building Council

BREEAM: sustainable building certification

GRESB: ESG data & benchmarking

*Embodied carbon: all the carbon emitted in producing materials. Embodied carbon is estimated from the energy used to extract and transport raw materials as well as emissions from manufacturing processes.

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