Construction and the fight of our lives

30 December 2019

“This is the fight of our lives” says Ovais Sarmand, Dep Exec Secretary, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. “Every single person needs to make this a priority in the way they operate in the world.”

It’s clear that there are early signs that we are starting to wake up to the threat of climate change in the vast number of councils, businesses, charities, professional organisations and national governments declaring Climate Emergencies and Net Zero Carbon targets. At the time of writing this piece, roughly 80% of UK citizens live in an area that has declared an emergency .

However, although we are starting to acknowledge the issue, the speed of change does not seem to reflect the emergency situation we are in. You can’t tackle a crisis with a business as usual mentality. Think about the largest oil tanker you can imagine and now imagine trying to get it to turn radically and quickly. Did I mention it is sailing in a sea of glue?

This is how it feels working in the construction sector.

Construction and/or buildings account for 1/2 of all extracted materials, 1/2 of all energy consumption, 1/3 of all water consumption and 1/3 of all waste in the EU.

And yet the list of interventions being undertaken by the sector to tackle these trends is decidedly sparse.

The construction sector simply cannot continue to responsibly consume the volume of materials in the same manner and accept the volume of waste that it produces any longer. Simply put, we cannot recycle our way out of this situation. The time has come to embrace circular economy thinking and that means valuing the material resources which we already have and those that we are going to use in the future.

The size of the task is considerable, but not insurmountable. I believe that those operating within the construction sector are the masters at solving problems laid before them. We simply need to lay the problem at their door in a uniform, clear and transparent way and let them get on with solving it.

On that basis, I lay the blame squarely at the feet of construction clients: for not asking “how can we make the least impact with this project?” rather than “how do we deliver this project at the lowest cost?”; for not setting briefs which challenge the industry to up its game; and for not asking for the predicted and actual consumption of materials and production of waste. Now don’t get me wrong, there are some who are trying to do just that but, in my experience, they seem to be restricted to the large-scale or sporadic, one-off projects. And there is especially a distinct lack of drive within the public sector – yes, even the ones who have declared a climate emergency.

This mindset shift is no easy task. Of the 92.8 billion tonnes of minerals, fossil fuels, metals and biomass that enter the global economy, only 9% is currently circular, i.e. re-used annually. Only if we start to ask for more in our tendering and supply chain engagements will we see mainstream change.

Earlier this year the UK Green Building Council released their circular economy guidance for clients to help clients do exactly this. So, if you need to build a new or refurbish an existing asset, I ask you: will you start asking the right questions? If you will, then maybe together, we can start to tackle this emergency head on and stop burying our heads in the sand.

Allan discusses three steps he believes that the construction sector can take right now in the blog: Counting carbon – tackling climate change in construction