What’s The Construction Industry Blueprint To Cut Carbon?

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The construction industry has focused on improving building design for decades. But now, as actors across the value chain see the need to increase decarbonization actions, more architects, builders, and contractors than ever are increasing investment in sustainable construction design innovation.

They recognize it’s important for the construction industry to step up to meet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s limit of global temperature 1.5 to well below 2 degrees Celsius compared to the preindustrial age. Of the total global emissions, building operations are responsible for 28% annually, while building materials and construction (typically referred to as embodied carbon) are responsible for an additional 11% annually.

Achieving zero emissions from the existing building stock will require leveraging building intervention points to accelerate the rate of energy upgrades — increasing energy efficiency, eliminating on-site fossil fuels, and generating and/or procuring 100% renewable energy.

It’s sorta hard to wrap one’s head around the immediacy of carbon reduction goals — in less than 9 years, these construction industry milestones for reducing carbon come due. By that time, contractors who are prepared to reduce carbon in multiple stages of the construction process will be well-positioned in an aggressive market. They’ll have a powerful competitive advantage.

The journey to that zero emissions construction industry place will be fraught with obstacles and unexpected detours, of course; that’s the way all innovation becomes mainstream.

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What will it take for the construction industry to cut carbon? By streamlining the construction process and considering an entire building’s lifecycle — from embedded emissions in materials, building energy efficiency, and end-of-life or repurposing — the construction industry could achieve net-zero carbon by 2050.

There is hope.

The task is enormous. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs projects 2.5 billion more people will pour into cities in the coming 30 years, and 60% of buildings required by 2050 have not been built yet. The rising energy use from inefficient buildings will impact us all, whether it be through access to affordable energy services, poor air quality, or higher energy bills.

What is built today will become an emissions legacy. The construction industry is grasping today to lock in new norms of tomorrow’s energy efficiency, green materials, and better practice in design and construction.

Construction with Carbon Reduction in Mind

The iterative process is a series of steps that is repeated, tweaking and improving the product with each cycle. As with any process, it takes a reflective company focus on tools and systems so that continuous improvement increases efficiency. Cutting carbon requires an iterative approach to building that makes the construction industry more precise and efficient. The iterative process helps with building design refinement and overall profitability, creates predictability for clients, and reduces the commercialization risk for both investors and contractor.

The result is buildings that are worthy of being repeated.

There’s help to achieve zero emissions goals for the construction industry. The Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction (GlobalABC) new Buildings Climate Tracker, for example, considers measures such as incremental energy efficiency investment in buildings and the share of renewable energy in global buildings. The GlobalABC acknowledges that the number of new buildings is likely to grow rapidly in the coming years, especially in Africa and Asia. This rapid growth will challenge the target of a 30% energy intensity improvement in buildings by 2030, which is needed to put the sector on track to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

What’s needed to reduce construction industry carbon?

  • expertise in design, material sourcing, manufacturing, logistics, and technology
  • proficiency in supply chain management
  • knowledge in ways to address fragmentation and inefficiencies
  • combining design and construction services
  • ability to target waste reduction
  • integrating software and technology at every stage of the build

Because buildings use 75% of the nation’s electricity, they have the vast potential to support the US in achieving net-zero emissions by no later than 2050.

A variety of approaches can fast track the construction of the low carbon economy.

  • Some contractors are re-adopting the core principles of historical techniques while adding today’s best efficiencies — enhanced by innovative construction technology to come up with a new, sustainable construction industry.
  • Green roofs, capturing rainwater, energy consumption and production, and stormwater treatment are just a few examples of top regenerative design strategies.
  • Computer scientists are developing software that uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to help construction reduce the amount of embodied carbon in their building and infrastructure.
  • Companies with a strong desire to reduce carbon emissions and energy consumption are installing solar arrays.
  • 3D printing is a fairly new technique in the construction sector, with the aim to improve the economics and alleviate environmental impacts.
  • Modular and standard design quickly scale low-carbon energy infrastructure, as they have a fast and repeatable design. A newly released report, Decarbonization During Predevelopment of Modular Building Solutions, talks more about this.

Certainly, it will take more data sharing, collaboration, and transparency to be able to achieve the decarbonization that the world demands of the construction industry in the next few decades. It starts with the composition of the construction materials themselves, as different composites and sources allow for various manufacturing processes. Half of all emissions are embodied in buildings — they are caused by the manufacturing of materials and the construction process — so, when companies are responsible for multiple stages of building, design can lead to collaborative relationships and shorter construction timelines.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development released a report in 2021 that called on the construction industry to adopt whole-life carbon assessments and set clear targets for decarbonizing the sector. The report identifies crucial next steps to support the sector’s journey toward decarbonization:

  • Adopt a clear definition of a net-zero building, taking into account whole life-cycle carbon.
  • Carry out WLCA on all projects, using a consistent methodology and open-source sharing of the data obtained.
  • Commit to clear, simple global targets across the buildings industry, including a valid approach to residual emissions (offsetting).
  • Develop consistent and transparent carbon intensity certification for components, systems and materials used by the industry.
  • Achieve wider collaboration, as individual organizations taking action just is not enough.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack: https://carolynfortuna.substack.com/.

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