De-carbonisation of the UK Construction Sector: Are We Ready for the Net-zero Age?

It’s probably too early to deliberate whether COP26 was a success, and if progress has been made since Paris. Glasgow will be remembered for the passionate speech from the Maldives representative, which reminded us (if ever we needed reminding) of the Armageddon-esque effects of climate change to the planet as a whole, and to small island nations in particular. The target remains to aim for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and to keep global warming close to 1.5 degrees.

All industry sectors will be under scrutiny as to whether they are doing their bit. The alarming stats were that towns and cities, and urban infrastructure generally, accounts for 40% of global emissions. With the erosion of green belt to satisfy the desire to meet housing needs, will planners tighten up on urban expansion and push for brown field utilisation? Enter climate risk planning. It is inescapable that the construction sector will be under the spotlight more and more on its efforts to implement net-zero delivery strategies and practices.

Globally, developing countries will now need to get support to adopt climate action plans, and International Climate Finance may be available for cities across Africa, Asia and Latin America via the Urban Climate Action Programme. They will be encouraged to have more smart buildings, lower polluting public transport systems, green renewable energy and to adopt climate risk planning.

The UK Government has announced that it will:

      • provide £5.9m of funding for the Gateshead District Energy Scheme, where a new housing scheme of 1250 homes will have a renewable heat network;
      • increase cycling and walking infrastructure schemes; and
      • encourage local net zero programmes to support councils financially in efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

The UK has also seen the passing of The Environment Act 2021, introducing a new Office for Environmental Protection. This will be discussed in more detail in a later blog.

As mentioned above, given that as a sector construction and the built environment accounts for 40% of global carbon emissions, the construction industry will need to look at its supply chain performance. We have already seen various construction industry bodies making statements of intent to do their bit to force change. For example, FIDIC President Tony Barry said that “engineers must face up to the urgency of turning COP 26 ambitions into outcomes”.  FIDIC has also introduced a Climate Change Charter.

So how does the construction industry make itself fit for the net-zero age? Contractors who own plant and machinery will have invested significant monies in what are assets of business. Will there be more electric vehicles and plant? Consideration of low carbon material processes? Greater usage and resourcing of local materials? Modular building? Retrofitting old stock housing with insulation and air or ground source heat source pumps?

Buildings made by the Victorians still stand proud, and it’s an escapable fact that they were built to last, and they have. Some modern buildings, particularly commercial units, may have a much shorter design life. Is this in keeping with the strive to get net-zero?  Building knowing that a development will last 30 years before it is torn down is possibly no longer sustainable. The throw away culture is now being frowned upon.

Will the strive to net-zero necessarily mean it’s more expensive to build and deliver projects, and will that matter?

Life cycle costs of buildings will now possibly attract more scrutiny. Banks funding projects will invariably adopt more green lending requirements. Institutional investors with large property portfolios may be less willing to take on buildings that are not efficient. Funders, developers, designers, engineers and planners will all need to come along the journey to achieve the targets set by COP26 Glasgow.

The decarbonisation of the construction sector, as with others, will be challenging. However, there is an air of inevitability that this change is now not a choice with the pressure coming top down from Government this will manifest itself in government infrastructure tender requirements, and these projects may take the lead in ringing the changes to delivery of carbon reduction procurement methodologies and schemes.