This week, the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh saw world leaders, business leaders, climate activists, civil society representatives and others arrive for COP27 – the largest annual gathering on climate action.

Running for two weeks (until 18th November), this United Nations conference is seeking renewed solidarity between countries to urgently tackle the global climate emergency and deliver on the Paris Agreement for people and the planet.

Approaches that can be made by energy intensive sectors such as oil, gas, steel and cement will be discussed on the conference’s ‘Decarbonisation Day’ (11th November) so we’ll be keeping a watch on what’s said. Meanwhile, we thought we’d take this as our theme for this week’s blog and look at five ways construction companies can lower their carbon footprint.

What is ‘Decarbonisation Day’ all about?

Since the adoption of the Paris Agreement, several energy intensive sectors and companies have come forward with plans, policies and actions that aim to reduce their carbon footprints and gradually move towards decarbonization.

As well as discussing emerging technological solutions such as those that reduce carbon in the atmosphere, this decarbonisation themed day at COP27 will be looking at an array of actions that high energy using industries can take to switch into a low carbon economy.

What can construction companies do?

The construction industry accounts for 38% of global CO2 emissions and, across the world, we’re adding buildings equivalent to the size of Paris into the built environment every week!

Under the Paris Agreement, the building sector must operate at ‘net-zero carbon’ by 2050 and to stand any chance of reaching that target, building carbon emissions need to halve by 2030.

While high-level talks on policies, approaches and solutions are vitally important for shaping the direction that the construction industry needs to follow, there are already many practices that all construction firms can implement to lower their company’s carbon footprint right now. Here are five methods we’ve come across:

1. Adopt sustainable construction methods

We can help to minimise the impact of construction on the environment by looking at both the methods we use on site and what’s built into the structures we create.

For example, prefabricated (or modular) construction is a method that involves producing components in a factory environment and then transporting them to the construction site where they are put together. When compared to carrying out the full operation on site, working in controlled indoor conditions has been found to lower waste, pollution, and energy usage.

The ‘fabric first’ approach is another method which can be effective in reducing carbon emissions. This basically means looking for any changes that can be made when considering the design, construction and ‘fabric’ of a building to ensure it becomes an energy efficient structure. The key elements to prioritise are the fabric’s insulation quality, ventilation, thermal mass and air-tightness.

Operate under a fabric-first approach, developers will look for things like how to increase solar gains – through solar panels, window positioning and window glazing – so as to reduce energy consumption within the building once it has been completed.

Related blog: Have you heard about the ‘Fabric First’ approach

2.  Go green with materials

Many of the materials we use in construction are extremely carbon-emitting (e.g. concrete) or have other implications for the environment (e.g. the use of plastics and slow-growing timbers).

To improve sustainability, think ‘re-use’ or ‘replace’. So, consider re-using materials from existing structures where that’s possible but also look for good sustainable alternatives to traditional construction materials. Some examples are fast-growing timbers like bamboo, recycled metals or plastics, mud-bricks and lower-emission concrete.

For building frames or external cladding, timber is a good option as it absorbs carbon dioxide (rather than emitting it), is thermally efficient and, when it’s lifetime is up, it can be recycled or reused as biofuel.

When choosing to re-use or replace materials, it’s important to remember that the pursuit of sustainability should not mean compromising on quality. Such a compromise could cause structures to need replacing earlier than what’s normal, resulting in higher environmental impact over the long-term.

Another key action around materials is to check whether suppliers are sourcing their goods responsibly. For example, timber should be harvested from certified forests that are continuously replenished and don’t cause environmental harm. Request evidence from suppliers to verify this.

3. Alter the job site

Construction sites often generate high energy usage, waste and pollution, but the impact of all of these things can be reduced by having controlled systems and practices in place, for instance around minimising water use, control of dust and other pollutants, waste-management, using energy-efficient equipment, maintenance of equipment and vehicles, utilising software solutions (in place of paper documents) and the use of renewable energies.

If it’s possible to power a site through renewable sources rather than fossil fuels, then the impact on the environment is obviously going to be reduced. Where that’s not possible, energy-use gains can still be made by going back to the fabric first approach and building renewable energy into the structures we create.

4. Cut out waste

When a construction job comes to a close, there can be leftover stock and no one wants to see this being added to landfill. Avoid that by:

  • Re-purposing materials for another site (if compatible with the job).
  • Recycling any recyclable materials.
  • Donating stock to community projects (e.g. charities, schools, youth groups).
  • Checking if your supplier offers a take-back scheme.
  • Putting the inventory up for sale (there may well be someone out there who can find a good use for it).

If you find you frequently have too much stock, be sure to look at your purchase ordering system and adjust this so as to receive quantities that are closer to what you actually need.

5. Spread the word

Once your company has established a set of good practices, make sure to spread the word among staff, customers and suppliers.

  • Provide training for your staff on sustainable policies/ practices.
  • Offer advice to customers on sustainable materials and construction methods.
  • Inform suppliers about your company’s environmental expectations.
  • Showcase your actions on your website and social media channels.
  • Head out to networks, conferences and industry events where you can discuss what you’re doing around sustainability and learn from others.

Collective action

When there are such stark warnings about what climate change could mean for the planet we all call home, it can easy to think there’s little anyone can do on the smaller scale. However, collective action is powerful and, if every construction company made even one or two of the adjustments listed above, this would undoubtedly have a significant impact in reducing the sector’s carbon emissions as a whole.

We’re all still learning about the best ways to deal with the climate crisis but the key word to take on board is ‘action’. Let us know if you have any ideas about what our company could do to improve our sustainability further. Comment over on our Facebook or LinkedIn pages.

Find out more about COP27 here.


Feature image: Freepik