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Transforming Construction for a Low Carbon Future


Without doubt, climate change is now the top societal challenge. With Boris Johnson needing to detail firm plans for the UK to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, ahead of this year’s COP 26 climate summit, what is the construction industry’s view?

November 2019 saw the National Federation of Builders’ inaugural meeting of the Major Contractors Group (MCG). Open ECX joined contractors and reporters gathered at the Institute of Civil Engineers in Westminster for the launch of the NFB’s report, ‘Transforming Construction for a Low Carbon Future’, which urges the industry to act now and radically change in order to reach the net-zero emissions target.

 

The challenge belongs to the entire supply chain

Mark Wakeford, Chair of the NFB’s MCG, stated that nowhere is the challenge of climate change more difficult, nor the opportunity so large, than in the UK construction industry. This sector accounts for 10% of the country’s emissions and influences a huge 47% of all emissions through related works. He emphasised that the new report is a ‘call to arms’ for radical change, starting now, across the entire supply chain and clearly warned that anyone operating the same way as they are today in 20 years’ time will be lucky to remain in business.

Clients must play their part too, says the report. There are of course already examples of this – BAA, the owner of London Heathrow airport’s Terminal 5 project, saw the opportunity to use the build to deliver new standards in environmental sustainability for the construction industry, encouraging project teams and suppliers to apply innovative techniques and best practice.  However the report suggests that more clients need to recognise their ‘responsibilities to society as commissioners, owners and operators of the built environment’.

 

What’s needed?

Also addressing the MCG at NFB’s conference was Ann Bentley, Global Board Director at construction consultancy firm Rider Levett Bucknall. She was passionate in her plea for change in the industry arguing, “If we don’t make the right choices, we will become unemployable… we will suffer the consequences – both as businesses and the human race.” She advocated the need to procure construction work on the basis of Natural Capital accounting, that is to use Lifetime Carbon as a procurement tool to assess the value of goods and services to their wider communities.

The MCG has challenged the Government to establish a Ministry of Carbon, requesting a significant spending programme to drive forward the initiatives needed to reduce the dependence on carbon. Grants are being provided – for instance February 2020 saw Mineral Products Association (MPA) securing £6m to trial hydrogen and plasma technology in place of fossil fuels in the production of cement and lime. However the MCG suggests more is needed and that a Ministry of Carbon could also drive a joined-up approach that brings together developments in skills, procurement, design, transport, products and materials.

In addition, the report recommends that the NFB itself should ‘educate all stakeholders regarding the challenges, urgency and solutions to reduce carbon dependency’, supporting their position that everyone has a role to play.

 

Zero carbon bringing opportunities

The report, NFB’s Chairman Nik Sangwin urged, is designed to “galvanise the sector into action” and lead the way towards zero carbon by 2050. The industry needs to wake up to the reality of the need for zero carbon, but also recognise that it brings opportunities across the sector, says the report – domestic, industrial, flood defence, the power sector and transport. Green initiatives can save money, are good for the bottom line and are good for staff morale and recruitment.

In fact, in an attempt to tackle both carbon emissions and costs, PBC Today has reported that Cartwright Pickard and The Mackintosh School of Architecture have conducted research into how new 7D BIM (Building Information Modelling) software could assist the Government’s commitment to the net-zero while also helping achieve a 33% reduction in whole life cost by 2025. This will allow those commissioning and designing buildings to make more informed decisions at every stage of the design process.

 

What’s the current reality and what can be achieved?

Some businesses already seem bought into the need to take carbon reduction seriously. Sir Robert McAlpine for example has committed to net-zero carbon emissions within the next five years by implementing new carbon-reduction initiatives, cutting down on construction waste and using more ethical supply chains. Meanwhile international construction and consultancy company, Mace, has announced that its ‘Steps Without Footprints’ strategy will achieve net-zero carbon emissions in 2020, and Midas Construction has begun work on a net-zero carbon science park building. However there are other areas that look less certain – with the green light being given to the controversial £100 billion HS2, will this project align with the UK’s net-zero pledge?

 

Small quick wins can drive change

It’s no longer a simple tick box exercise. Massive carbon reduction will not just happen; it requires planning and the realisation that small quick wins can drive a shift in the right direction and can provide real incremental benefits, not just on site but in the back office.

Take paper, for example – over-use has a massive impact on a business’ carbon footprint, not just from the felling of trees, but also from the fossil fuel and chemicals used for printing. Very simply and quickly however, paperless transactions such as electronic invoicing, electronic ordering, or receipt of subcontractor applications via an online portal, can dramatically improve efficiencies and cost-savings, while also reducing your carbon footprint.

As the report says, ‘There is no time to lose to tackle climate change; the War on Carbon must be fought’.

Read the full NFB Transforming Construction report here.

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