A 'deconstruction industry' can help cut infrastructure sector emissions

Out-Law News | 28 Sep 2020 | 10:48 am | 2 min. read

An entirely new 'deconstruction' industry is needed to enable the recycling and re-use of processed raw materials used in infrastructure projects to help the sector cut its carbon emissions, an expert has said.

Norbert Pralle, head of foresight and innovation at construction company STRABAG, said "resource efficiency and circularity are central to a CO2-neutral environment".

Pralle was commenting during a recent webinar organised by Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law. The webinar looked at how the infrastructure market is adapting to a lower-carbon world.

According to Pralle, a significant part of CO2 emissions are "embedded" in infrastructure and building projects, with construction waste a major contributor to higher emissions. Natural resources are not efficiently used – which is fostered by the "siloed profit model" that exists in the fragmented construction market, along the entire construction value chain: from those involved in procurement, design, and the provision of raw materials and other supplies due to the largely independent way each part of the value chain operates.

Pralle said a more holistic and aligned approach is needed, considering the demand for new infrastructure in the first place, and that a "deconstruction industry" is also needed to ensure that natural resources that have once been processed for use in infrastructure projects are not thrown away after the asset has been demolished at the end of its life cycle.

"Once materials – raw materials – leave the biosphere and enter the technosphere because they are processed, we need to keep them in the technosphere and recycle or reuse them as much as possible," Pralle said. "For that we need to create a deconstruction industry as powerful and elaborate as the mining industry."

Pralle said the success of a deconstruction industry would be dependent on the viability of keeping track of deconstructed materials, which would then be reprocessed so that they could be made available on demand for reuse.

"We need a comprehensive registry for deconstructed materials with clear identities, i.e. properties, which can then be allocated to new construction projects," he said.

This circularity system would need to be underpinned by a legal framework, from regulations and standards to procurement requirements, Pralle said. This more "integrated, systematic approach" would conflict with existing business models. However, he said commercial viability could prevail through greater collaboration. And by rethinking incentives for investment to recognise that the return on investments would take years – potentially decades – longer to materialise.

McDonald Nick

Nick McDonald

Partner

There will be rewards to be reaped by those who embrace decarbonisation and pivot firmly towards it

Pralle's comments come after specialists in finance and projects at Pinsent Masons recently warned that construction companies, engineering firms and other businesses active in the infrastructure sector stand to lose out on funding, investment and major government contracts around the world unless they take a more active role in the fight against climate change.

Nick McDonald, who specialises in infrastructure projects consenting at Pinsent Masons, said: "We have seen site waste management plans required on construction and demolition sites for a number of years – although they have sought to drive re-use of materials they are a relatively weak stick, often with little oversight in practice. To achieve the visionary idea of a deconstruction industry we will see these becoming site material management plans, covering not just the traditional construction stage but the whole life cycle of the asset."

"Whilst the idea of a body of rules to achieve a circular materials system may seem like a big stretch looking at it in 2020, it is these kinds of ideas which we need to test and implement quickly if we are to achieve the Paris Agreement goals. And for companies working within the sector, there will be rewards to be reaped by those who embrace decarbonisation and pivot firmly towards it," McDonald said.

The Paris Agreement, signed by over 190 countries around the world, aims to limit global warming to 1.5°C and has been widely interpreted as requiring global carbon dioxide emissions to reach net-zero by 2050.