Will 2021 be the year construction goes green?
Gareth Rondel, Environmental and Sustainability Lead at CHAS, considers whether 2021 could be a pivotal year in the construction industry’s efforts to reduce its environmental impact.
Over the last twelve months it would have been easy for the construction industry to let the green agenda slip. Instead, there were encouraging signs that the sector’s journey towards net-zero is gathering momentum, with a number of factors having an impact.
With the manufacture of cement alone responsible for around 8% of global CO2 emissions, finding replacements for high-carbon materials is a top priority for the sector. It is also a critical element of the UK reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, according to a report by the research consortium UK Fires. Thankfully alternatives to traditional cement and concrete, including blended cements and concretes, concrete that stores CO2 and cements made from alternative materials, are becoming more widely available and affordable.
Better still, low carbon options are starting to outperform traditional materials. In January 2021, researchers from RMIT announced it has developed a new method for casting prefabricated concrete products made with rubber tyres, and construction and demolition waste that are up to 35% stronger than traditional concrete.
New ways of working
More advanced construction techniques are reducing waste and energy use and tackling other inefficiencies on building sites. As buildings become greener, so do construction sites with progress in off-site fabrication of materials, improved on-site maintenance, lean practices, waste reduction and landfill avoidance, all fundamentally transforming the way buildings are constructed.
The coronavirus pandemic has also ushered in new ways of working that have had a positive environmental impact. The move to working from home and a general reduction in business travel brought immediate carbon reductions. There has also been an acceleration in the adoption of remote monitoring and maintenance technology. Continual innovation in this area will enable people to fulfil their roles remotely with increasing efficacy. I’d hope that as we begin to relax the restrictions that we’ve all worked under over the last year, that we don’t just return to our old ways of working. By being more flexible we can continue to take advantage of lower impact ways of working.
New environmental targets
Although the Environment Bill, has been delayed until ‘the next parliamentary session’, and it is unlikely to receive Royal Assent until the autumn, the bill signals that legally binding targets for biodiversity, air quality, waste and water are on the horizon. Businesses that review how they are monitoring and managing these issues now will be better be prepared for any future changes in legislation.
January 2021 also saw the launch of the Dasgupta Review – which was commissioned by HM Treasury and sets out the ways in which we should account for nature in economics and decision-making.
The review calls for changes in how we think, act and measure economic success to protect and enhance our prosperity and the natural world.
In recent months, there has been good news for construction companies looking to source their energy needs from renewables. According to a report released in June 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), renewable power is becoming increasingly cheaper than any new electricity capacity based on fossil fuels. A subsequent report from the International Energy Association released in November 2020, showed that solar is now the cheapest form of energy ever.
An increasing number of construction companies are also signing up to RE100, a global corporate renewable energy initiative that brings together networks of organisations committed to ambitious pledges to drives climate action at speed. A list of the commitments companies have made to using renewable energy can be found here.
The UK government’s ruling that all new vehicles sold by 2030 must be hybrid or fully electric has catalysed innovation in the electric vehicle market. Thanks to developments in battery technology, electric cars are expected to become cheaper than other types without subsidies within five years. Combined with the expansion of the electric charging network and increases in range performance, this is making all-electric fleets a more attractive prospect.
Plant also has a significant impact on air quality in metropolitan areas and emissions control zones have been introduced. This is driving up the standards required and reducing emissions overall. Plant manufacturers have responded with significant progress in the electrification of heavy construction equipment with several electric excavators, wheel ladders and rammers now available and many more launches planned for 2021. Laing O’Rourke’s plant division, Select Plant, is set to take delivery of the world’s first electric crawler crane designed by Liebherr in March 2021. There are also a number of electric pick-ups under development.
As well as reducing emissions, switching to electric construction equipment brings a welcome reduction in noise pollution.
As the old adage goes, you can’t manage what you don’t measure and it is becoming commonplace for businesses of all sizes to track their carbon use. Thankfully, there are many tools available that can help businesses with this task – tools such as CHAS Plant, can monitor all of the plant in use on a site and help meet regulatory obligations like non-road mobile machinery (NRMM). Another example is the Highways Agency’s carbon calculator for construction carbon emissions that offers their supply chain a consistent method for recording and calculating carbon emissions. Managing carbon also helps companies manage costs as reducing one will more often than not also reduce the other.
As companies get more proficient at monitoring and reducing their carbon use some are even looking beyond net zero to consider how they can become carbon positive.
Promoting a clean, green recovery
In its ‘New Deal’ recovery package announced in June 2020, the government committed to building back greener. Highlighting that the UK was the first major economy to enshrine in law its commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 and that it has a proven track record of cutting emissions while growing the economy, the government pledged to continue to build on this and deliver a stronger, cleaner, more sustainable economy.
This was followed by a £134 million investment pledge to enable ground-breaking clean growth projects to develop new technologies and secure new jobs. An example of a company that received funding is Robotiz3D in Manchester, which is developing autonomous technology which will enable robots to be deployed to patrol UK roads to detect and repair cracks and potholes as soon as they appear. This approach will speed up the time taken to make repairs and will lower overall costs, while reducing the carbon footprint caused by road maintenance vehicles.
Further measures will be set out in the run-up to COP26 in November 2021. COP26 is a global United Nations summit about climate change and how countries are planning to tackle it.
Launch of The Construction Playbook
As the construction sector’s biggest client the government has set out its intention to become an ‘intelligent client’ which involves being clear about what it expects and building trust-based relationships with its supply chain and partner organisations.
In line with that ambition, in November 2020, the government published the Construction Playbook. The guidance details how government and industry can better work together to deliver public sector works in a more modern and efficient way. It also outlines initiatives for the construction industry to minimise greenhouse gas emissions of projects and provides a framework for the key role the construction sector will play in both the UK’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and work to bring greenhouse gas emissions down to net-zero by 2050.
The Construction Playbook also has a focus on delivering ‘faster, better and greener’ infrastructure that provides value for money while promoting a more stable supply chain. It reflects the commitment made by Government to deliver on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Alongside the net zero commitment the Playbook refers to minimising the use of resources, reducing waste and increasing biodiversity and delivering positive social impact. This supports the government’s presumption in favour of sustainable development.
Sustainable supply chains
When it comes to supply chains, while they can be hugely complex, taking a life cycle approach to sourcing materials, products and services is an increasingly popular route to achieving sustainability. Companies with their own strong sustainability strategy are motivated to purchase goods and services from suppliers whose sustainability goals are aligned with their own and there is a shift towards developers, designers, engineers, contractors and clients working together to reduce their environmental impact; collaboration is key.
CHAS can help clients find contractors who are committed to high levels of sustainability through their free CHAS Client supply chain management services. They can also help contractors demonstrate their commitment to high environmental standards via assessment and accreditation schemes such as the Common Assessment Standard, which covers all areas of risk management, including sustainability. CHAS Clients receive real-time alerts about the compliance status of their supply chain partners, among other business benefits, while accredited CHAS Contractors can prequalify for thousands of projects with CHAS clients looking for suppliers with sustainable business practices.
It is clear that the construction industry has the wind in its sails in its journey to becoming more environmentally responsible and if current trends continue to accelerate, 2021 will be a significant year in the industry’s mission to go green.
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