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Cop26: construction sector needs support to deliver

The Glasgow COP26 conference has brought a sharper focus than at any time in our history on the impact of climate change and the need for governments, business and individuals to do something about it.

The construction industry faces its own challenges over this issue as a major contributor of CO2 emissions. The UK’s industry is believed to have produced around 13.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2019. This represented a slight reduction from 2018, accounting for roughly three per cent of all UK carbon dioxide emissions that year.

While they are well below the carbon footprint created by cars (responsible for around 18% of UK CO2 emissions) and aviation (approximately seven per cent, based on pre-Covid figures), construction-related CO2 emissions are substantial.

It’s little surprise that there’s mounting pressure on the sector to speed up the pace in reducing its carbon footprint and hit COP26 targets. A report published in September by the National Engineering Policy Centre (NEPC) concluded that the UK construction sector needs to decarbonise more urgently in line with national emission reduction targets of 68% by 2030 and 78% by 2035.

The NEPC is a partnership of 43 of the UK’s professional engineering organisations led by the Royal Academy of Engineering. Its report, Decarbonising construction: building a new net zero industry, calls on both government and the construction industry to set challenging but clear targets to deliver the net zero transformation quickly and at scale. It calls for a range of measure including more holistic and efficient building designs, more recycling of building materials wherever possible, and the use of non-fossil fuel powered machinery to eliminate carbon emissions from building sites.

While the NEPC report highlights how the sector still has a way to go in its net zero journey, it’s also important to acknowledge that progress is being made in a range of areas.

This includes the emergence of offsite construction methods being used across the industry where more designing, manufacturing, and fabricating building elements are produced in a factory before they are moved onsite. This approach transforms sustainability of the construction lifecycle by reducing waste. It also improves worker safety, quality standards and, importantly, can reduce costs.

We’re also seeing some of the major players in UK construction directly investing in green innovation to reduce emissions. Last month JCB announced it was spending £100M on a project to produce highly efficient hydrogen engines within its machinery which is used on sites across the UK.

An example of construction sector sustainability innovation that sits close to my own heart is the ongoing development of eco-conscious building materials. Last month Levenseat was proud to introduce a new stream of accredited aggregate products providing a sustainable and lower cost alternative to virgin aggregates. The new products are made using incinerator bottom ash and have secured ‘end-of-waste’ status from Scotland’s environmental regulator SEPA making them safe to use on projects.

Among the other innovators in this space is the German company Elegant which has produced a building cladding that absorbs pollution in cities. This is made from a carbon-negative material containing atmospheric CO2 which offers a net zero solution to carbon-producing materials.

It’s also encouraging to see sustainability-focused collaborations between industry and government including one we’ve been proud to support, the Short Life Working Group, set up by Ivan McKee, the Scottish Government’s Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism earlier this year. The group is comprised of representatives from Scottish Enterprise, the Scottish Futures Trust, and construction industry bodies. It was created to focus on addressing shortages of key materials with an ultimate aim of building resilience and self-sustainability within Scotland’s construction centre.

We need to build on this and the COP26 momentum and address barriers that are preventing a faster transition towards a low carbon construction sector. These include a reluctance from within the industry itself to embrace innovative, new materials on projects. Part of this is driven by a fear of change as well as the lack of incentives to embrace greener solutions.

This is where government and events such as COP26 have a further important role to play. It will likely require a carrot and stick approach involving new incentives for construction companies which can make demonstrable changes in their operations to reduce their carbon footprint. It may also be necessary to implement new forms of legislation that require companies to opt for more sustainable materials and develop greener practices where it’s possible to do so.

The focus on addressing climate change will increase in the wake of COP26 and the UK construction industry will undoubtedly continue to innovate to ensure it contributes to this process. It’s essential for everyone within the sector to play their part. With further support from government, we can succeed in delivering a greener industry.

Article submitted by Robert Green, Technical Director at Lanarkshire-based Levenseat, a company committed to developing new solutions to recover the best resources and provide customers with environmental and economic solutions.


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