Towards sustainable construction: Understanding the industry’s impact

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Modified on June 8, 2021

In October 2020, the world-renowned naturalist Sir David Attenborough has released the documentary, “Life on Our Planet” which he calls his “witness statement” for the environment. Today, he is 93-year-old and for over 60-years, he has explored wild places on every continent on the globe. Through his eyes, he has seen the scale of environmental change caused by human activities. How steeply is the health of our planet declining nowadays?

In this article, we will drive your attention to the environmental crisis nowadays and explain the role of the construction in it because, first, we need to understand how exactly the industry impacts the environment so we can successfully make the move towards a ‘better’ building sector.

In the second part of this article, we continue the topic “Towards sustainable construction” and explore how construction actors can contribute themselves to tackle the negative impact on the environment.

The impact of the construction industry on our planet

Construction is a massive industry, connected to almost every other industry across the globe.

The bad side of this, however, is that the carbon emissions from construction activities are huge. Their impact on climate change is one of the main challenges for achieving environmental balance and responding to the current climate emergency.

The Global Status Report 2019 states that the buildings and construction sector account for 36% of final energy use and 39% of energy and process-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. According to another report, this time by the European Commission, the construction waste has been identified as a priority stream because of the large amounts that are generated and the high potential for re-use and recycling of these materials. Moreover, proper management would lead to effective and efficient use of natural resources and would help for reducing the environmental impact on the planet.

All this demonstrates the importance of the construction industry in contributing to a healthier and more sustainable environment.

But if construction is among the main suspects, why we haven’t switched to more sustainable practices? The answer is simple.

The construction industry, as it operates today, is simply not set to be sustainable.

The construction industry, as it operates today, is simply not set to be sustainable. Our sector is not on track with the level of necessary climate actions. It is still fragmented, inefficient and relies on a wide range of materials with long and complex supply chains. Still, many of the most widely used construction materials are from carbon-intensive heavy industries.

However, connecting the construction supply chains and digitally transforming the sector bring out the potential to take the right steps towards its decarbonization.

Better data collection, analyses and use of this meaningful information can highlight efficiencies to reduce carbon emissions and minimise waste generated by the construction. Data is at the heart of sustainable practices.

Better data collection, analyses and use of this meaningful information can highlight efficiencies to reduce carbon emissions and minimise waste generated by the construction. Data is at the heart of sustainable practices. But to fully understand the industry’s impact and how technology can support us, first, we need to clarify the difference between the two categories of carbon emissions released by the construction.

Carbon emissions released by the construction industry

To take a step towards more sustainable construction, we need to explain what type of greenhouse gases are generated by the industry so we can set the right practices towards minimising them. In a report by the World Green Building Council (WorldGBC), we find information about the operational and embodied carbon dioxide released during typical construction processes.

What is operational carbon?

Operational carbon relates to the emissions that result from the energy-usage of a building or infrastructure.  Example of such emissions is when we heat the building or when the lights are on. Even though those have a bigger portion of the total CO2 released by the industry, operational carbon and energy efficiency are more well-established concepts with clear drivers and incentives for addressing them.

 What is embodied carbon?

Embodied carbon covers greenhouse gas emissions that arise from the energy and industrial processes used in the processing, manufacture and delivery of the materials, products and components required to construct a building. Embodied carbon is released during all related phases of a construction asset – from the material extraction, transportation, actual construction and maintenance, to its final deconstruction and transport to the end of life facilities.

Embodied carbon emissions account for 11% of all global carbon emissions.

While we must continue to focus on addressing both types of carbon emissions, it seems like little attention has been paid to tackling embodied carbon emissions.  Unlike operational carbon emissions, which can be reduced over time with the use of renewable energy and energy efficiency renovations, embodied carbon emissions are locked in place as soon as a building is built. It is critical that we get a handle on embodied carbon now if we aim to phase out fossil fuel emissions.

New policies and best practices that lead the way forward

Bold policy initiatives incorporating embodied carbon have already been set at a national level in France, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries. These initiatives are already driving private sector action by providing policy frameworks that set ambitious but feasible requirements for the industry. Additionally, cities can be leading examples of policy action and boost industry confidence is adopting new better ways of doing business.  The Nordic region has always been a great example of a good, healthy life and leading sustainable practices available nowadays.

Take Oslo for example, the birthplace of Cobuilder.

How do Norwegians succeed in decreasing carbon footprint?

The City of Oslo works towards reducing its greenhouse gas emissions in a dialogue with construction contractors. By 2030, Oslo intends to reduce carbon emissions by 95% from the 1990 baseline and become completely fossil-fuel free. This includes zero-emission construction sites which currently use biodiesel, or electric machinery, and are almost fossil-fuel-free already. Couldn’t we replicate such good practices to the construction sites in other countries too?

To create conditions for such a drastic shift in the global mindset, there is a need for collaboration across the whole construction value chain. The global conversation around the importance of minimising the construction impact has been sparked. This itself is progress but it is still not enough. We need the united efforts of the construction demand and supply side, as well as the focus of governments, policymakers and societies – which is gradually happening.

If you would like to learn how YOU, as a construction actor, could support this brave new vision, read the second part of our series of articles dedicated to the move towards sustainable construction, ‘How each construction party can help‘.

If you would like to read more, you can also check our article ‘Using technology to reduce embodied carbon: From EPDs to PDTs‘.

Take a deep dive into the environmental performance of construction products in our whitepaper “Construction Products Key Environmental Indicators”.