Climate Crisis

Governments need better data to guide green construction

Seven construction workers stand on site: Industrial decarbonization needs better data.

Industrial decarbonization needs better data. Image: Unsplash/Scott Blake

Tareq Emtairah
Director – Department of Energy, United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)
Rana Ghoneim
Chief of the Energy Systems and Infrastructure Division, United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)
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Climate Crisis

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  • Public procurement accounts for 25-40% of the demand for steel and cement, for which emissions must drastically reduce (by more than 90%) by 2050 to reach climate change goals.
  • A global coalition of governments and private sector organizations called the Industrial Deep Decarbonization Initiative launched in 2021 and, in September, pledged the monitoring and disclosure of embodied carbon emissions.
  • Reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 requires better data to monitor the progress of decarbonization efforts in public construction and establish a common approach for collecting data and reporting on low and near-zero-emission materials.

A growing number of consumer companies have developed “carbon labels” that disclose their products’ carbon footprints. Such labels should allow buyers to make more informed choices and compare different products’ impacts on climate change. But what if a government – a much larger consumer than individuals like you and me – wants similarly to evaluate the carbon footprints of construction materials they buy?

To translate their green commitments into meaningful action, governments need better data on the climate impacts of what they procure. And because of their significant purchasing power, this data and decisions guided by it can impact even more. So figuring out how to comprehensively and comparably measure the carbon footprints of building materials is essential, requiring collaboration and coordination to get it right. Thankfully there is new international momentum to make this happen.

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Full disclosure

At the Clean Energy Ministerial in Pittsburgh this September, the Industrial Deep Decarbonization Initiative (IDDI) announced a new Green Public Procurement Pledge. Most immediately, it asks governments to start requiring the monitoring and disclosure of “embodied carbon emissions” – all the GHG emissions associated with building construction – of steel, cement and concrete used in public construction projects by 2025. These common building materials are very carbon-intensive, contributing around 50% of global industrial carbon dioxide emissions. Decarbonizing these materials is critical for addressing the climate crisis – governments, among their major purchasers, have a crucial role in achieving this goal.

Public procurement accounts for about 25% of the total demand for steel and 40% for cement (also used to make concrete). Demand for these materials will likely continue to rise with industrialization and urbanization. But to achieve global climate goals, their emissions will have to decrease by more than 90% by 2050. The pledge aims to incentivize the production of lower-carbon varieties by signalling to the market: if you make it, we will buy it. This understanding is important to lower the risk of investment in new technologies.

The pledge’s request for the monitoring and disclosing of embodied carbon emissions builds on commitments made at last year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). But repetition here is important for those market signals. Meanwhile, additional “ambition levels” in the pledge go further, including targets by 2030 to use low-emission steel, cement and concrete in all public construction projects with at least one flagship project using all near-zero materials. The long-term goal is net-zero by 2050 but we need interim action and better data to monitor progress.

That means establishing a common approach for collecting data and reporting on low and near-zero-emission steel, cement and concrete. This data is necessary to set and monitor progress against targets and to document and share best practices that others can emulate.

There are no unified criteria for eco-labels for these products, leading to different ones across countries, making them difficult to compare.

Tareq Emtairah, Director of Sustainable Energy and Decarbonization, UNIDO and Rana Ghoneim, Head of Energy Systems and Industrial Decarbonization, UNIDO

Standardization

Launched last year, IDDI is a global coalition of governments and private sector organizations coordinated by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). Member states include Canada, India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States. One of its key working groups, chaired by the United Kingdom, is focused on data and reporting standards and includes more than 45 members from the private sector, government, civil society, intergovernmental organizations, trade associations, academia and think tanks.

Currently, there are no harmonized methodologies for capturing the embodied carbon emissions of steel, cement and concrete. There are still open questions on scope, boundaries, technologies and timelines, as well as how to best capture data in ways that are easily accessible and understandable to consumers. A key issue is the lack of publicly available data on the emissions generated at each stage of material production and use.

Some countries, such as Japan and South Korea, have developed voluntary eco-labelling schemes to promote green procurement. For example, the Japanese label is called the Eco Mark. A Green Purchasing Network in the country publishes an online database of products with this label. This data is available to procurement officers and the general public. South Korea – whose label is called the Korean Ecolabel – has meanwhile been a frontrunner in the use of electronic procurement systems and platforms for green public procurement.

But there are no unified criteria for eco-labels for these products, leading to different ones across countries, making them difficult to compare. This lack of uniformity can be confusing in a globalized economy with international supply chains.

Globally, pioneering companies are also racing to install the first commercial-scale facilities for greener steel and cement, for example, and to implement new technologies like hydrogen and carbon capture. But we need even more businesses to join them – and increase market transparency along their supply chains. Questions over standardization, privacy and governance often make companies reluctant to share and reuse data. Changing this can help us meet climate goals – and drive innovation and productivity.

Industrial decarbonization needs

Governments’ public construction projects include schools, hospitals, public housing and other buildings, roads, railways and other transportation infrastructure and energy-utility sites, such as hydroelectric dams and wind turbines. They are paid with taxpayer money by governments committed to tackling climate change.

Achieving the targets set by the Paris Agreement (limiting global warming to well below 2°C and preferably to 1.5°C relative to pre-industrial levels) will require deep decarbonization of industries, including construction – globally. Green public procurement is a way for governments to leverage their immense purchasing power to stimulate the market and reward businesses that develop greener products to help reach Paris goals.

Just as a climate-conscious individual consumer may want to know the carbon footprint of the things they buy, governments need detailed information and comparable data to shop responsibly and put their environmental commitments into practice. Hopefully, the momentum from Pittsburgh will help make this a reality.

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