Decarbonising construction is happening, but leaders must be bolder

Out-Law Analysis | 22 Jul 2021 | 2:53 pm | 3 min. read

How much to build must be the fundamental question when considering the decarbonising of construction. Unless we are prepared to consider building nothing or building less we won’t achieve our carbon emissions targets.

Construction and buildings sectors being responsible for around 40% of carbon emissions globally, so there is a clear need for this industry to meet the decarbonisation challenge.

The journey to deliver pledges to ‘building better’ needs clear roadmaps, targets and goals but also big and bold strides to be taken by both the public and private sectors, which both play important roles. Both are needed to meet the net zero carbon emissions targets set by governments.

While the construction industry is evolving to align more with modular construction and manufacturing processes, this is not a silver bullet or the whole solution to the build better challenge.

Decarbonising is not just about process, it is also about materials

And even the biggest construction companies cannot do this alone. They will need to act together, to forge new alliances and create new relationships to make it work. They could share manufacturing facilities to make sure the enormous capital investment will pay off. They could collaborate with public sector buyers on how to price differently constructed projects. And they need to review and reorganise relationships with suppliers to ensure that new approaches work for everyone.

Some of the challenges to be faced include the need for clients to be alert to the opportunities in the market; the supply chain issues, and to avoid anti-competition or limited ability for market responses to carbon reduction requirements. They will need to understand and restructure supply chains to modify methods, services or materials. Transparent forms of contract and procurement must be understood by the market, and aspirations should be clearly articulated to allow markets to respond. But speed is of the essence, and time is running out.

Decarbonising is not just about process, it is also about materials. The industry still uses very heavy, carbon-intensive materials like steel and concrete. Alternatives, such as graphite for steel or composites including graphite and perhaps recyclable materials are now more readily available in the marketplace. Regulations should be modified to support new, alternative low carbon forms of construction materials.

And it’s not just new build, by extension the drive to ‘build better’ also means build less, or build nothing at all. That doesn’t mean do nothing, but rather repurpose, reuse, extend lifespans and reduce wastage and carbon. We can rethink designs and make them fit for secondary purposes. Reducing carbon by whatever means possible must be the mantra.

Construction emissions are only part of the story. Almost 30% of global emissions come from energy use once buildings are in use. Energy markets have been seriously disrupted in recent years with financing being withdrawn from fossil fuels by some banks and investment agencies, disrupting the market and providing the impetus for renewables to take hold. Wind turbines, solar panels and other forms of renewable energy have been instruments of change. But this didn’t happen without interventions, tax incentives, market demands and other instruments.

But even those changes are insufficient to rise to the challenge of the race to zero carbon. More needs to be done. And in order for the construction industry to demonstrate clearly and authentically that it is playing an important role in this race there needs to be credible carbon accounting. This is crucial to the understanding of where the starting point is for each party on the journey, and allows targets to be set to achieve the goal we should all be working towards. Credible carbon accounting and use of disclosure mechanisms are essential components of this journey.

Political leaders have their part to play. Moving construction to an industrialised manufacturing basis is likely to cost more in the short term but will produce climate and economic benefits in the long term.

We are on the cusp of changes to behaviours and buying. Engaging with the component parts of the construction industry and its supply chain is crucial. And we must not forget users. Users of the infrastructure and buildings need to be at the centre of our bold visions for getting to a zero carbon future.

One cause for hope is the increasing diversity of our decision makers. As more people are involved in decisions, the decision-making improves, and we are more likely to ask and answer the big questions: what are we building for? The answer has to be: for people, for the attainment of net zero targets, and for survival.

By Anne Kerr, managing director Greater China, and global head of cities for engineering firm Mott MacDonald