The government has set a challenging target to achieve Net Zero by 2050 , and this is only 27 years away. Given the lack of game-changing commitments resulting from last year's COP27 summit in Egypt, many are wondering how this target can possibly be achieved.
The construction industry is under significant pressure to play its part, with estimates suggesting that the industry is responsible for 40% of the energy demand in Europe and that it is the greatest offender in the world when considering embodied carbon.
There are two types of carbon emissions that must be considered by those in the industry if we are to achieve the government's target. These are embodied carbon, and operational carbon. Operational carbon is simplistically described as the carbon emissions resulting from the use of the built environment.
Embodied carbon is harder to measure, consisting of all of the CO2 emissions that result from extracting, manufacturing and transporting the raw materials that are used in the construction of worldwide buildings and infrastructure. This includes the production of aluminium and concrete, and deforestation resulting from the importation of foreign timber sources.
Strategies for change
In order to avoid becoming a scapegoat for insufficient progress towards the goal of Net Zero by 2050, it is essential that the industry takes control of its own destiny and pledges to improve its sustainability practices. This will not only preempt any potential criticism by government bodies and other industry sectors but could go a long way towards avoiding mandated or punitive measures which could otherwise be imposed to drive the necessary improvements in energy efficiency.
1. Retrofit existing infrastructure.
It is likely that 80% of the buildings in existence today will still feature in 2050 , and therefore retrofitting the majority of this existing infrastructure with energy efficiency measures will be a significant contributor to reducing CO2 emissions from the built environment.
Increasing levels of insulation into walls and loft spaces, fitting photovoltaic solar panels and conserving water are straightforward measures that are ideal for retrofitting into built structures and that can make a significant difference to carbon emissions and occupant comfort. These measures can also drastically reduce energy bills, resulting in impressive cost savings, making them more attractive to home and business owners.
2. Collaboration and competition.
In order to deliver long-lasting results, it is important to take a holistic view of all construction projects. Developing sustainable practices will only work if they are embraced by all businesses within the supply chain. This means that collaboration will be a critical component of any plans to become more sustainable.
Inculcating competition between developers and construction professionals can also be a valuable tactic for promoting the desired behaviours. Each time a construction firm announces that they are embracing innovative or next-gen technologies to improve their sustainability measures, they receive public plaudits from their customers and the general public, and this improves their reputation and ability to secure new contracts.
Doing better than the competition, making greater carbon efficiencies, delivering greater social value, achieving all set KPIs and promoting these facts can drive a culture of continuous improvement, which will only be beneficial for the whole of the UK's construction industry.
Standards and benchmarking.
As discussed in a previous post, it is likely that new standards will be required in order to perform effective benchmarking and to provide evidence of the carbon savings that have been achieved. This is necessary not only to support our industry's claims, but also to provide the government with the evidence that is required to measure progress against carbon reduction targets.
In 2022, the cost of construction materials increased by a staggering 27%, and this certainly contributed to a deceleration in suppliers opting for higher cost, more sustainable materials to satisfy their contractual requirements.
In order to make demonstrable progress against the government's carbon reduction targets, it will be crucial to reduce wastage insofar as possible, to improve accuracy in built designs, incorporate sustainability measures at the outset, recycle or reuse spare material and set realistic budgets.
Customers will need to recognise that cheap builds will fail to satisfy sustainability goals which will only become more stringent with time, and that the future cost of retrofitting these buildings will come at a higher cost than incorporating the necessary measures into the initial build.
The construction industry will only be able to meet the Net Zero by 2050 target by adopting a multi-pronged strategy for success. Working together, learning from industry experts, embracing modern methods of construction, considering the whole life of each project at the planning stage, and developing realistic costs will all be essential components of a plan to deliver carbon neutral construction that will benefit our future generations.