The built environment and infrastructure are usually seen as essential parts of an economy. During and following the pandemic there was a strong push to build back better. Some companies took this as a cue to embrace more sustainable building practices while other focussed on output and new project starts. The reality is that the two are inextricably linked. Especially as the built environment is guilty of producing the majority of CO2 that is fuelling climate change.
Every brick, slab of concrete, or piece of reinforcing steel carries with it a large carbon footprint. Combining raw materials, production emissions, waste, and transport very quickly adds up, making construction one of the most carbon intensive industries.
Climate events in the past few years such as heatwaves, floods and snowstorms, have shown that the UK’s infrastructure as it stands is not equipped to handle extremes. Railways buckling in the heat, roads and bridges collapsing. Construction and infrastructure are now having to deal with the problems they helped create over the past decades. If that isn’t a good enough reason to get serious about net zero efforts, I’m not sure what is.
To its credit, the construction industry has made significant progress in recycling building materials and has one of the highest recycling rates, compared to other industries. Additionally, there’s a renewed focus on refurbishment rather than demolitions and new builds. Ultra-low carbon emission zones in urban centres have forced construction companies to look at alternative types of construction vehicles such as EV’s and hydrogen vehicles. But is it enough?
The problem is that too often sustainability is viewed as a cost. It’s simply a box that needs to be ticked to comply with minimum regulations. The approach is a series of consultations and reports that come at a hefty fee. With the result that’s what’s remembered is the fee and not the recommendations.
Perhaps it’s because of this that it’s so hard to make progress. Perspectives are entrenched and it’s believed it’s too hard or too costly to change operations. And in the process, there’s a great deal of opportunity that is being missed. More sustainable building practices can result in a more productive industry. If the construction industry were to broaden their understanding of the circular economy and embrace alternative materials and construction methods, achieving net zero might just become a possibility.