Five ways to decarbonise the UK Construction Sector

The construction industry has been one of the highest emitters of carbon dioxide in the UK, with the emissions amounting to approximately 3 per cent of the countrys total CO2 emissions. The industry has seen an overall increase in emissions in the past 30 years, with amounts reaching 13.4 metric tons in 2018. It is more important than ever to bring down these emissions and reduce the carbon footprint of the industry. But how can companies lower their emissions and decarbonise the construction sector? Lets look at five short-term and long-term changes that can help companies reduce their carbon footprint and contribute to decarbonising the construction sector:

Increasing material efficiency

One of the best ways to reduce the carbon footprint of the sector is by increasing the efficiency of carbon-intensive materials, like concrete and steel, that are used widely in the industry. Studies have shown that repeating design elements can reduce time, ensure compliance with safety codes and bring down the use of carbon-intensive materials. Rationalising modular components through standardisation can greatly increase the efficiency of materials used and result in lower emissions. 

A study conducted by Cambridge University in 2014 showed that just by reducing the amount of steel by 20% and cement by 32%, the carbon emissions of the industry could be reduced by 11%. 

Choose low-emission machinery

Another major way the construction industry can help bring down emissions is by investing in low-emission construction machinery. Electric vehicles and biofuels are easily available today and are pivotal in reducing the emissions from construction machinery that amount to about 10% of the total production-based emissions in cities. Companies like Caterpillar and Volvo are leading the use of low-emission construction machinery with electric diggers and much more. 

Make better use of existing buildings

Buildings in the UK are being underused. As of October 2018, 216,186 dwellings were vacant in England alone. The industry should look at refurbishing and repurposing existing structures instead of constructing new buildings. Architects should keep this in mind when designing homes and buildings and should design spaces that can facilitate future effortless changes from residential to commercial and the other way around. According to the findings of a study, a drop in the demand for new buildings could further reduce emissions by 7%. 

Opt for lower emission materials

Simply replacing high emission materials with lower emission alternatives can help to bring down the carbon footprint of the construction industry. This can be easily done by choosing sustainable timber as a primary building material rather than high-emission materials like structural steel and concrete. The increase in the demand for timber in construction will result in the growth of more trees that absorb carbon from the atmosphere. 

Additionally, companies can switch to low-carbon cement, as cement is usually one of the biggest polluters, accounting for 8% of global carbon dioxide emissions. Using low-carbon cement can lead to a reduction of 61% in carbon intensity, resulting in a 6% reduction in the industrys emissions. 

Recycling building materials and components

Currently, construction and demolition waste, including bricks, wood, glass, plastic, gypsum, metal, asbestos and solvents, is all considered waste. If the industry could find a way to recycle these items and reuse them in future projects, this would reduce waste and cut the emissions caused by mining and manufacturing the construction materials. Achieving this would require a big shift in the industry, and buildings would need to be designed so that they are easy to dismantle. Modular designs could help with this. 

A study suggests that recycling 11% of construction materials, such as metal and petrochemical-based kinds, could lead to a reduction of 2% of the industrys emissions.