Davos Agenda

This is the next hurdle in the construction industry's race to net-zero

construction industry leaders strategy net-zero carbon emissions

Not all construction industry leaders are currently pursuing an aggressive enough strategy to deliver net-zero carbon emissions. Image: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Coen van Oostrom
Founder and Chief Executive Officer, EDGE
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Davos Agenda

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  • The built environment accounts for 39% of gross annual carbon emissions worldwide.
  • And within this figure, embodied emissions — which includes all the emissions created in producing construction materials — is a significant offender.
  • But new modes of construction and new ways of tracking data and working with partners offer a route toward cutting embodied carbon and creating a zero emissions construction industry.

This summer, an unprecedented heatwave swept over Europe, shattering records from Portugal to Poland. No country was spared the sweltering heat. But the heat isn’t the only thing making Europeans sweat — the understanding that this is merely a prelude to our climate future, one that Europe is not immune to, is causing widespread anxiety.

The advantage of this is that never before has the imperative to reduce our carbon footprint been so urgent, nor so widely understood.

While most, at long last, now seem to recognize the imperative of taking decisive climate action, not all construction industry leaders are currently pursuing an aggressive enough strategy to deliver net-zero carbon emissions — let alone trying to achieve zero carbon footprint for their projects and business operations by 2050.

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Embodied carbon: construction industry's biggest obstacle to net-zero

According to the United Nations Environment Program, the built environment accounts for 39 percent of gross annual carbon emissions worldwide, a figure comprising both operational carbon, the ongoing carbon emissions from its day-to-day use, and embodied carbon — all the CO2 emitted in producing materials. Embodied carbon is estimated from the energy used to extract and transport raw materials as well as emissions from manufacturing processes.

When we account for embodied carbon, the building industry is the biggest offender when it comes to global emissions.

While construction industry leaders have made great strides on the operational front in recent years, this is but a first step. All too often, embodied carbon has been left out of the equation. With the problem of embodied carbon now taking center stage, this is the moment to make bold commitments and take immediate action.

Building a path forward

Any route to net-zero requires clear thinking and thorough accounting, beginning with accurate measurements of all carbon sources in order to ultimately reduce, reuse and recycle wherever possible.

Alongside buildings’ operational carbon and the embodied aspect of the construction process itself, real estate developers must be mindful of their own intrinsic carbon output. That’s why, in accordance with the “Scope 1-2-3” rubric of the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, many companies — for example Edge — are reconsidering every aspect of their business models, from travel to food, seeking further cutbacks and a chance to practice what they preach on sustainability.

Maintaining transparency, for example by announcing footprint objectives on each new building project and broadcasting the results as widely as possible, not only keeps the public in the loop but also encourages a generative, competitive race among developers to top each other’s numbers. This is another chance to do better: an aggressive posture from even one company can start a virtuous cycle, becoming a force multiplier for progress.

It is essential that construction industry's general contractors, architects and governments find ways to graft recent innovations onto long-established best practices. Large-scale timber structures offer an alternative to more carbon-intensive materials. At the same time, innovations mean that some of the latter are set to embody less carbon than ever before, as demonstrated by the new low-carbon concretes from start-up Alcemy, which has collaborated with Edge and Züblin, a leading German construction company.

No less important — since companies cannot manage what they cannot measure — are contemporary design-build platforms and sourcing databases. Some are already working in this space to provide systems that comprehensively track climate-change-related data.

Madaster, for example, allows businesses to track every piece of material and every high-insulating window, eliminating job site waste while ensuring reliable data on the final product. Integrating systems like this into every aspect of processes means businesses can track and control their carbon budgets with the same precision and dedication that they track their finances.

Clearing the roadblocks for the construction industry

The question of integration points to the three greatest remaining obstacles to a zero-carbon future, both of which require collective action as part of a workable industry-wide roadmap.

The first is a need for effective collaboration between architects, contractors and all the other project stakeholders who make for a successful construction project. Collaborators need to know and fully understand carbon targets from the very outset of a project, and lines of communication should be kept open to ensure they meet them. Notwithstanding the massive quantities of time and money that such coordination requires, working together towards the same goal is essential for success, and the more partners who join, the faster meaningful change will occur.

The second problem is the astonishing lack, between markets and even between building types, of standard definitions and benchmarks for net-zero buildings across the construction industry. Pushing to reach zero carbon emissions may mean one thing to one company, but something very different to another. The various green councils, proprietary ratings organizations and other certification bodies, while each useful to varying degrees, should be complemented by more easily adopted and comparable universal metrics, dispelling confusion and allowing developers and clients to set clear goals and measure their outcomes.

The third roadblock is linked to governmental actions. Currently, there is a lack of support to drive more change despite technology already available to build more sustainably. Governments should implement a carrot-and-stick approach to encourage more companies to take such ambitious actions and reward such efforts with subsidies. Governments should also issue penalties to companies not doing enough to protect our planet. Such an approach could increase the motivation and create incentives to be more proactive in the construction industry for more to happen, at a faster pace.

It is right to ask how quickly we, as an industry, can make zero carbon emissions the norm in construction, and it is already being asked, even, whether a more modest, two-thirds reduction can be reached within the tight timeline afforded by the UN’s projections.

The construction industry has woken up to the fact that carbon must be cut and the industry must reach net-zero. Now, the genuine understanding that it really is possible is perhaps the next most important step. None of this will be easy, but project by project, companies like Edge are showing that it can be done.

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