Can The UK Construction Sector Move Faster To Curb Carbon Emissions?

The UK construction sector needs to achieve the carbon neutrality goal by 2050, but can we move faster to reduce carbon emissions?

The urgency to combat climate change has never been greater, and the construction sector plays a pivotal role in driving carbon emissions. The United Kingdom, renowned for its commitment to sustainability, must take bold and accelerated steps to curb carbon emissions within the construction industry further. The UK is set on achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, and without a doubt, everyone needs to play an important part in cutting carbon emissions and promoting sustainable practices.

The way the construction sector consumes resources is in a way that is not entirely sustainable. First, we must consider what sustainable construction looks like, how to measure it and how we can implement green practices to be more environmentally friendly.

By adopting innovative technologies, implementing sustainable practices, and fostering collaboration among stakeholders, the UK construction sector can lead the way in achieving significant reductions in carbon emissions.

What Does Sustainable Construction Mean?

Sustainable construction involves designing, constructing, and operating buildings and infrastructure to minimise negative environmental impacts while promoting social and economic well-being. It encompasses a holistic approach that considers the entire life cycle of a construction project, from material extraction and construction to operation, maintenance, and eventual demolition or repurposing.

Examples of sustainable construction practices include:

Energy-efficient building designs.

The use of renewable energy sources such as solar panels or wind turbines.

Rainwater harvesting systems.

Green roofs.

The incorporation of natural, sustainable, recycled or locally sourced materials.

Waste management strategies, such as recycling construction debris and the implementation of environmentally friendly construction processes.

How Much Does The Construction Industry Contribute To Carbon Emissions?

The Construction Industry Council states:

“The built environment and construction sector accounts for 38% of global carbon emissions, and it has been estimated that globally we build the equivalent of a city the size of Paris every week.”

Building operations are responsible for around 25% of those total emissions, while building and infrastructure materials and construction are responsible for an additional 13% annually.

What Challenges Does The Construction Sector Face When It Comes to Sustainability?

Existing Buildings.

According to Architecture 2023, in 2040, an estimated 2/3 of the global building stock will be buildings that exist today. And why is this a problem?

Simply put - these buildings will still emit CO2 emissions. Achieving zero emissions from existing buildings requires leveraging building intervention points designed to accelerate the rate of energy upgrades. This includes eliminating on-site fossil fuels and generating 100% renewable energy.

Embodied Carbon.

Embodied carbon refers to the amount of carbon emitted during building construction. Embodied carbon begins when the raw material is extracted from the ground and then transported, processed, formed to shape and then delivered to site. Natural materials such as timber have a low embodied carbon (and even balance off the processing caron due to the carbon stored within the material) compared to a man made material such as concrete, which has an extremely high embodied energy value.

Non-Sustainable Materials.

Concrete, steel and aluminium are three widely used materials in construction, responsible for an estimated 23% of total global emissions. This challenge can be overcome by reducing the embodied carbon reduction through design, policy and material selection. Alternatively, architects, contractors, developers, and builders must opt for more sustainable materials such as timber, bamboo, cork, etc.

Availability & Cost of Materials & Technology.

Although organisations within the construction industry are working towards more sustainable, green practices, we also need to be mindful of the availability of materials and technology. These can be limited in specific areas, and the cost of implementing sustainable practices may be another limitation to overcome.

Accelerating Carbon Emission Reductions in the UK Construction Sector: A Call to Action

Matt Chambers, Sales & Marketing Director of Dale Joinery, explains that there are many opportunities to create effective, sustainable outcomes, specifically within construction.

“Over the past few decades there has been a dramatic increase in the awareness of global warming and the detrimental effects the temperature changes have on our environment as a result of increased carbon emissions.   The built environment, of which the construction sector encumbers a large portion, accounts for 40% of the UK’s carbon emissions at present and our industry needs to increase its efforts to decarbonise far more effectively in order to meet national emissions targets of 68% by 2030 and 78% by 2035. 

I am a firm believer in the use of utilising natural, sustainably sourced materials within the construction sector. The use of timber in construction is a great example of a naturally occurring material that when managed sustainably can help cut carbon emissions due to a low embodied cradle to gate carbon footprint alongside removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere throughout the growth stage. 

Timber is a very easily worked material that can provide a speedy build process, whether on site or offsite prefabricated construction, saving on build costs.  Additionally timber is a great natural insulator and supports a buildings overall thermal performance to help reduce the energy consumption on a daily basis.  In the last decade there has been a visible increase in designers, contractors and individuals who are taking a more considered approach to sustainability and carbon reduction on their projects as a result of various media and government backing.

However I believe unless legislation is enforced, the vast majority of the construction industry will not move forward on this journey to meet national targets."

How Can We Reduce Carbon Emissions?

Embrace Low-Carbon Materials and Design

A fundamental aspect of curbing carbon emissions in the construction sector involves embracing low-carbon materials and design practices. Using sustainable building materials, such as recycled steel, timber from responsibly managed forests, and low-carbon concrete, can significantly reduce emissions associated with material production. Architects and designers must prioritise energy-efficient designs, incorporating passive heating and cooling systems, renewable energy sources, and optimised insulation to reduce the operational carbon footprint of buildings.

Implementing Offsite Construction and Modular Techniques

Offsite construction and modular techniques present tremendous opportunities to expedite project timelines while minimising carbon emissions. Prefabrication allows for efficient resource allocation, reduced waste, and improved construction quality. By shifting towards offsite manufacturing and adopting advanced modular construction methods, the UK construction sector can streamline processes, reduce transportation-related emissions, and deliver projects faster, all while ensuring high-quality construction standards.

Harnessing Digital Technologies and Building Information Modeling (BIM)

Digital technologies, including Building Information Modeling (BIM), hold immense potential to revolutionise the construction industry’s approach to carbon emissions. BIM enables collaborative project planning, resource optimisation, and enhanced communication among stakeholders. By leveraging BIM and integrating it with emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), construction professionals can achieve greater efficiency in energy management, reduce waste, and make informed decisions that minimise the carbon impact of construction projects.

Promoting Circular Economy Principles

The concept of a circular economy, where resources are kept in use for as long as possible, and waste is minimised, can significantly contribute to carbon emission reductions. The construction industry must prioritise reusing, recycling, and repurposing materials to reduce the demand for new resources. Implementing robust waste management systems, encouraging deconstruction instead of demolition, and fostering partnerships with material recycling facilities are crucial steps towards establishing a circular economy within the sector.

Investing in Renewable Energy Generation

The construction sector can actively contribute to carbon reduction efforts by investing in renewable energy generation. On-site solar panels, wind turbines, and other renewable energy systems can power construction sites, reducing reliance on fossil fuel-based generators. Additionally, incorporating energy storage solutions and smart grids can optimise energy usage and reduce the carbon footprint of construction activities.

Strengthening Collaboration and Knowledge Sharing

The UK construction sector must foster collaboration and knowledge sharing among stakeholders. Construction companies, architects, engineers, policymakers, researchers, and industry associations must work together to develop and promote sustainable practices, share success stories and lessons learned, and establish clear industry standards and regulations. Collaborative platforms, forums, and initiatives can serve as catalysts for the exchange of ideas, best practices, and innovative solutions.

Aligning Policies and Regulations

Strong policy frameworks and regulations are vital to drive sustainable practices and accelerate carbon emission reductions in the construction sector. Governments should incentivise low-carbon building materials and mandate minimum energy efficiency standards for new buildings. Encouraging green building certifications like BREEAM can also promote sustainability adoption across the industry.

The UK construction sector must seize every opportunity to curb carbon emissions. By embracing sustainable construction practices, the sector can significantly reduce its carbon footprint and contribute to national and global climate goals. The time for action is now, and with a concerted effort from everyone, the UK construction sector can pave the way for a more sustainable and carbon-responsible future.