When it comes to living, breathing and working within the context of an environmental crisis, it appears the human response is a bit like a game of tug-of-war with various opinions and decisions pulling in opposite directions.

On the one hand we have an increasingly urgent need to reduce emissions and halt the disastrous effects of climate change but on the other hand we watch as the global population keeps urbanising. The UN estimates that by 2050, two thirds of the world’s population will live in cities and of course that means increased building works.

Great for our industry right?

Well, let’s jump to the other side of that rope again. Buildings and their construction account for 36 percent of global energy use and 39 percent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions annually. Those emissions are calculated in two ways:

  • Day-to-day energy usage that comes from lighting, heating and cooling (28% annually)
  • The amount of carbon generated via manufacturing building materials, transportation of materials and the actual construction process (11%)

Here in the UK, the government has set a target of being carbon neutral by 2050 but in the wake of coronavirus pandemic, the government has also announced large swathes of investment in infrastructure projects – ‘Build, Build, Build’ said the latest catchy slogan!

Do you see where we get the idea of that tug-of-war going on?

So, the big question has got to be how do you keep building while also reducing emissions? The obvious answer is that there are going to have to be some big changes in the construction industry now and over the next few years.

Luckily we don’t have to approach this blind as back in November 2019, the National Federation of Builders’ Major Contractors Group (MCG) issued their proposals in the report ‘Transforming Construction for a Low Carbon Future’.

Heralded as a ‘call-to-arms, here are two of the report’s key recommendations:

1. A move to natural capital accounting and redefining value in contract tendering

‘Natural capital accounting’ is a term we’re probably going to hear much more of in the coming years. It’s basically a system which attempts to quantify to value of the world’s natural resources such as fossil fuels, arable land, air and water quality, all living things and the ecological services needed to support them.

Applying this to construction, the MCG is urging government and other public sector clients to measure carbon when procuring construction work use. They particularly recommend using the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 to use Lifetime Carbon as a procurement tool to assess the value of goods and services. This is something we should expect to see becoming equally important within the private sector too.

In other words, whereas the industry has had years of lowest price tendering, there needs to be a shift to ‘value’ which incorporates the added value of carbon reduction.

2. Using less steel and concrete

Cement and steel manufacturing are responsible for about 16% of global carbon emissions.

While eliminating these key materials seems unlikely, it’s pretty obvious that a reduction in their use should become a priority goal for all construction projects wishing to meet low carbon goals.

When launching the report, MCG chair, Mark Wakeford, said: “The year 2050 might seem a long time away but it’s really not much time to radically change our industry. We must start now… Anyone still operating the same way as they are today in 20 years’ time will be lucky to still be in business. The report we are launching today is a call-to-arms; we’re telling the government and the industry alike to wake up to the reality of zero carbon and act now.”

The full report, ‘Transforming Construction for a Low Carbon Future’, is available here.