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March 17, 2020

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Construction that doesn’t cost the Earth

Environmental responsibility is a major concern for the construction industry and it has never been more important for companies to use contractors that meet the latest sustainability standards, explains Ian McKinnon, Managing Director at CHAS (Contractors Health & Safety Assessment Scheme).

Ian McKinnonAs its effects become increasingly evident around the world, the pressure to combat climate change is intensifying. While the environmental impacts of aviation and agriculture may attract more attention, sustainability is a huge issue for the construction sector.

All stages of the construction cycle can affect the environment and the figures show the scale of the issue. The manufacture of building materials has been estimated to account for around 10% of the global energy supply. In the UK, the construction, operation and maintenance of the built environment is thought to account for around 40% of the total carbon footprint. The industry is also responsible for a significant proportion of all landfill waste, with around 32% of the total in the UK estimated to result from the construction and demolition of buildings.

Water use is another concern. Despite Britain’s reputation for rain, water is in short supply in many areas and that situation may worsen if climate change leads to further periods of drought. As the Environment Agency Chief Executive Sir James Bevan pointed out in March 2019, unless suitable action is taken the country may be only 20 years from the “jaws of death”, where we will not have enough water to supply our needs. Water is used throughout all stages of the construction life cycle, and the industry is estimated to account for 30% of total water use in the UK.

With the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) having warned that the world may have little more than a decade to limit the scale of the climate change catastrophe, there is a clear case for the construction industry to seek improvements in the way it operates.

Download: Environment Bill summary

Law of the land

excavator loader machine at demolition construction siteThe case for change is not limited to the moral argument. In the UK, there is an increasing legislative imperative for the sector to reduce its impact on the environment. As the case for action on climate change has grown, so too has the ambitiousness of legislation.

In 2003, the UK set a target of reducing CO2 emissions by 60% from 1990 levels by 2050.

The Climate Change Act 2008 was then created to ensure greenhouse gas emissions were at least 80% lower than 1990 levels by 2050. In June 2019, the Government opted to go even further, introducing laws that oblige the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Three months later, the Scottish Parliament voted on a bill that committed Scotland to become a net-zero society by 2045.

Various other Government initiatives have relevance to sustainability in the construction industry. The Social Value Act, introduced in 2013, means those who commission public services must think about how they can also secure wider social, economic and environmental benefits.

The Clean Air Strategy 2019, meanwhile, set out an ambition to reduce particulate matter emissions by 30% by 2020, and by 46% by 2030. It highlighted the impact of non-road mobile machinery (NRMM), such as construction equipment, in terms of nitrogen oxide, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds. In London, 7% of nitrogen oxide and PM10  (particulate matter 10 micrometers or less in diameter) is estimated to come from machinery used in the construction and infrastructure building sectors.

In Central London from 1 January 2020 a law change came into effect which means certain construction machinery is subject to more stringent emissions standards with GLA enforcement officers visiting sites to check plant and machinery complies. There are currently challenges around the availability of compliant plant and the GLA says it is “working with industry to monitor and improve the availability of compliant equipment and retrofits,” so exemptions are considered. However the key message is that sites must be prepared to be audited and have a readily available audit trail. Products such as CHAS Plant, which was launched in January 2020, can help. CHAS Plant offers an immediate central view of all plant and equipment certification, inspection and maintenance documents, including emissions ratings reports for all NRMM.

Across the rest of the UK, the lack of a national register makes regulating NRMM difficult but Defra is currently reviewing data on both machinery use and lifespan and has commissioned a research project on NRMM emission controls.

Moving forward, environmental obligations in the UK are only likely to be strengthened further. The existing targets already present major tests for the industry, but these are tests that will need to be overcome, so companies must ensure they are ready; it is clear that inaction is no longer a viable option.

As climate change threatens to cross unstoppable tipping points, opinion polls show a growing number of people in a range of countries are seriously concerned about climate change and this shift in the public mood has impacts for construction companies. Stakeholders across all areas are now likely to care more about sustainability, whether that be future employees, investors or collaborators. As such, prioritising the environment is essential for everything from employing the best talent to winning contracts. Where once the focus was on the cheapest way of doing a job, there is now a growing emphasis on sustainability, as demonstrated by the fact that some of the world’s biggest companies are seeking to demonstrate their commitment to a circular economy.

The construction industry has already collectively agreed to halve its emissions by 2025 as part of the Government’s Industrial Strategy, and there is clearly a growing recognition of the need for change.

How can third party accreditation help?

Construction engineers discussion with architects at construction siteCorporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was introduced as a self-regulating approach to accountability. As part of that, many construction companies would set out a sustainability statement and commit to doing their best to minimise the environmental effects of their work.

Now, though, environmental stakeholders of all kinds are likely to not only demand that companies set out their ambitions but also to insist on assurances that they are performing to the standards they claim. For many stakeholders, connecting with conscious organisations is hugely important and they want evidence that the environment is being given due consideration.

This is where third-party accreditation comes in. At CHAS (The Supply Chain Risk Management Experts), we offer the Common Assessment Standard (CAS), a new pre-qualification system developed alongside Build UK and the Civil Engineering Contractors Association.

The Common Assessment Standard was developed to improve productivity, aiming to reduce inefficiencies that are costing the construction industry up to £1 billion a year, and environmental compliance is a key element.

For example, the Common Assessment Standard establishes whether contractors have a documented policy and organisation for the management of construction-related environmental issues, as well as whether their procedures are effective. Applicants are asked to provide evidence that they follow and communicate their legal responsibilities related to sustainable materials procurement, waste management, energy management and carbon reduction. They should also detail how they respond to, monitor and record environmental incidents, emergencies and complaints.

Under the Common Assessment Standard, companies are audited once a year so their sustainability standards are not allowed to slip. Using CHAS-accredited contractors, then, allows construction companies to rest assured that those they have chosen to work with are environmentally compliant.


Since the 1980s, average temperatures have exceeded the last century’s average every year.

⦁ Human-induced climate change made the 2018 record-breaking UK summer temperatures about 30 times more likely than it would be naturally.

⦁ With the Climate Change Act 2008, the UK became the first country to introduce a legally binding framework to tackle the issue. In June 2019, the UK became the first major economy in the world to pass laws to end its contribution to global warming by 2050

⦁ According to the UN Global Status Report 2018, buildings construction and operations accounted for 36% of global final energy use and nearly 40% of energy‐related carbon dioxide emissions in 2017. It said buildings and construction sector emissions appeared to have levelled off since 2015, although they still represented the largest share of total global energy‐related CO2 emissions.

Long awaited Environment Bill Back in Parliament

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