Counting carbon – tackling climate change in construction

22 January 2020

While the climate emergency is omnipresent in day to day life, that ‘emergency’ does not seem to have incited the endlessly pragmatic, can-do people of the construction sector into action.

The figures speak volumes. Construction and/or buildings account for a staggering:
• 1/2 of all extracted materials
• 1/2 of all energy consumption
• 1/3 of all water consumption
• 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.

So what will it take to ignite this sector into taking action? Here are three steps I believe we need to take now:

1. Mandate the public display of project waste and material performance of all projects

I am amazed that waste forecasts are still calculated in a non-robust and transparent way to clients through the tendering process, and that we are not valuing our materials enough to prevent a consistent stream of excessive over ordering on projects. Transparency and accountability are required in equal abundance to drive up performance across the sector and start to drive down consumption and wastage.

Think of the Display Energy Certificate (DEC) principle in energy; all projects should have to make public how the predicted tonnage of materials consumed, and waste produced compares to what was actually produced. This would help to identify what standard practice should look like and make clients feel more accountable for their project performance.

2. Measure the embodied carbon emissions for projects above a certain threshold

I subscribe to the age-old mantra, if you don’t measure something then you can’t effectively reduce it. If clients were to ask for the embodied carbon emissions of their projects to be calculated as part of the design process, we would have an effective starting point for more circular conversations about material choices, whole life carbon impacts and manufacturing practices. The UKGBC published a guide in 2017 for clients, on how to develop an embodied carbon brief, to do exactly that.

Of course, carbon emissions are not the only relevant metric for reporting on environmental impact, nor are they perfect, but it could be an effective place to start and deals directly with the climate emergency that we are facing.

There are free to use and publicly available tools to help calculate the carbon emissions of construction products such as the Inventory of Carbon and Energy (ICE) Database and the RICS Building Carbon Database, developed by WRAP and UKGBC. These tools should be used to effectively benchmark current and future builds, to understand where improvements could be made in terms of material choices, circular economy and construction techniques and to challenge product manufacturers to provide more bespoke carbon figures for their products.

3. Find new ways to communicate carbon emissions

Other sectors, in particular the food industry, are starting to report carbon emissions alongside products they offer. For instance, Oatly reports the carbon emissions on every product, whilst Sticklebarn has moved to be the first pub in the UK to report the carbon emissions of each product on their menu. This allows people to make environmentally informed choices as easily as we make health choices about the calories in our meal.

This is possible in the construction sector too, and some companies are doing this. In 2015, British Land commissioned Atkins to produce benchmarks for embodied carbon for key elements and types of build projects using industry information (WRAP, RICS) and existing British Land detailed project analysis as shown in the table below :

UKGBC Embodied Carbon Brief Guide

But, this approach is not a widely adopted position and the construction sector supply chain needs to adapt and evolve. “Businesses that don’t adapt to their changing role in society and don’t adopt new businesses practices will wither away and die. They will struggle to recruit and retain staff, fail to meet the standards required by clients and suppliers, and find sources of external finance increasingly scarce. The age of the dinosaurs is coming to an end” says Jonathan Pell, CEO of Adam Smith International, a certified B Corp.

Above all, we need to realise that the current methods of communicating emergency aren’t working, and it is too easy to continue as normal. Increased transparency surrounding embodied carbon emissions could enable clients to make informed choices and ask relevant questions. In turn, this could drive exciting innovations within the sector to get us where we need to be, as soon as possible.

So why can’t we count our carbon for our buildings the way we count our calories in our meals?