The UK’s construction industry requires a ‘new approach to resource use, and a target to reduce it’ if the nation is to succeed in creating a green economy; that is a key message included in a new piece of research by independent think tank Green Alliance.
The report launched earlier this month finds that the UK consumes almost 15 tonnes of non-renewable resources per person per year- almost double the UN’s stated sustainable level of between six and eight tonnes. A significant portion of this is attributable to the construction industry, which uses significant volumes of non-renewable resources. According to research, construction is the biggest producer of waste in the UK and generates a quarter of the country’s consumption emissions. In 2018, for example, construction, demolition and excavation generated almost two-thirds (62%) of the UK’s waste[i].
Source: Green Alliance
Challengingly, many of the resources used by the UK construction industry are high in embodied carbon- these are greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions resulting from extracting and processing materials and making them into products and buildings, alongside the emissions associated with transport and work on a construction site. The report argues that while the Government has been introducing policies to tackle operational emissions caused by buildings, less has been done to tackle embodied carbon.
To reduce embodied carbon and other emissions concerns, the research proposes introducing processes that will see the sector move towards a circular economy. Green Alliance has warned, however, that failing to make the construction sector more circular[ii] will likely mean it is unable to reach net zero in line with the UK Government’s 2050 deadline. As a result, their report highlights several areas in which the construction sector and government should seek to improve practices and introduce circularity. Specifically, they recommend action in three key areas: finance, design, and data, which they believe would reduce the sector’s use of raw materials by 35%, thus greatly cutting its climate impact[iii].
For example, Green Alliance highlights offsite manufacturing as one such area for change- this has the potential to improve resource efficiency as less product is wasted, and in other studies, up to 90% less waste has been reported. They also note that pre-manufacturing can reduce embodied carbon by 45% and enable “high-quality insulation to be added to floor and wall panels during factory construction, to create energy-efficient buildings.”[iv]
Green Alliance also wants to see more done by the government, arguing the case for targets to reduce the use of raw materials, suggesting that, at a minimum, raw materials are reduced by one-third by 2035. They suggest that targets could be set higher for more carbon-intensive materials, and the key to reduction will be in making it easier for developers to reuse materials. To reduce the number of buildings being demolished per year (currently estimated at 50,000 per annum), Green Alliance not only proposes annual targets but also recommends that the Government axes VAT for retrofit projects. It is hoped this will incentivise developers to consider retrofitting before opting for demolition. Green Alliance believes that their findings show:
“That, by 2035, techniques and technologies already available could reduce the use of raw materials by over a third. This could also reduce the sector’s carbon footprint by 39 per cent in addition to relieving pressures on land use, biodiversity, water and waste.”[v]
The Dutch construction industry has faced similar challenges as the UK, being the largest producer of waste and one of the country’s highest carbon emitters. As a result, the Dutch government has set cross-economy targets, including those for the construction industry, for a completely circular economy by 2050. This includes the target of raw material consumption, excluding renewable resources such as timber, to be reduced by 50 per cent by 2030.
“This plan has three pillars: first, the optimal use of materials for all phases in the construction cycle; second, to use as many ‘infinite’ materials as possible, with more and higher grade reuse; and, third, to make use of finite sources as efficiently as possible. Priorities supporting these aims include developing uniform measurement of circularity, for which PBL (the Netherlands’ environment assessment agency) has been establishing the baseline for metrics and monitoring.”[vi]
Green Alliance draws attention to the fact that The Dutch government has used its powers to drive change through regulation and financial incentives, as well as to create demand for more circularity as the construction industry’s primary client. They argue that when it comes to infrastructure in particular, this is also the case in the UK.
[i] Circular-construction.pdf (green-alliance.org.uk)
[ii] What is the circular economy, and how can individuals introduce the concept of circularity into their lives? | Zero Carbon Academy
[iii] Circular construction: building for a greener UK economy » Green Alliance (green-alliance.org.uk)
[iv] Circular-construction.pdf (green-alliance.org.uk)