Scaffolding Association CEO, discusses net-zero carbon emissions

In this article Robert Candy, Scaffolding Association CEO, discusses net-zero carbon emissions.

The government has set out a target to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and the construction sector will need to participate in every part of this effort, from insulating homes to building clean transport and energy infrastructure.

Throw that into the mix with the growing number of local authorities setting their own ambitious emissions goals, and you can see why pressure is mounting.

The UK’s construction industry produced 13.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2019, a reduction of three percent from the previous year. Despite this, the number still represents a 45% increase since 1990 and while the sector only accounts for roughly three percent of the UK’s total carbon dioxide emissions, achieving netzero is a challenge of monumental proportion. This comes at a time when demands on the industry show no sign of slowing.

A significant amount of construction is expected in the coming decade to fulfil the government’s target of building 300,000 new homes per annum.

The recent relaxation of rules around planning applications to demolish and rebuild vacant and redundant residential and commercial buildings and the retrofit programme for energy efficiency improvements in millions of homes will itself drive an enormous amount of activity. The questions most people are asking right now are: How is all this going to be possible? How will we get from where we are now to where we need to be in the future? These are not just being asked by the construction sector either. Energy supply, transport, agriculture – all areas of industry have the same challenges and unanswered questions.

For construction, the expectation will be that embodied carbon (the carbon footprint associated with products and materials throughout the whole lifecycle of a building or infrastructure project before it becomes operational) will need to be measured, reduced and offset to achieve net-zero carbon. There are already recommendations for increasing the use of certain materials such as timber in new buildings and for transitioning to alternatives such as the use of wool in place of traditional insulation. Remember, none of this considers the rising cost and availability of any materials.

The Construction Leadership Council (CLC) recently launched its Construct Zero change programme which sets out how the sector will commit to and measure its progress. The programme includes several commitments made by the industry to reduce its carbon emissions such as working with government to deliver retrofitting to 27 million homes by 2040, eliminating 78% of diesel plant from construction sites by 2035, providing clients with alternative low carbon design options, and targeting 1,500 of the sectors largest businesses and clients to sign up to a measurable carbon reduction plan. These pledges are of course welcome, however even if they are successful, they will only address the tip of the iceberg.

The construction industry has a high proportion of SME businesses, (20% of the UK’s total), that are critical to the sectors overall success and ambitious environmental targets. These 1.7m businesses are faced, as we all are, with information overload. Government announcements, media scaremongering, fake media, enormous amounts of statistics and written word most of which is contradicting itself from one source to another.

To stand any chance of success, yes we need to address the big-ticket items such as accelerating the shift to zero emission vehicles, optimising modern methods of construction, and championing low-carbon building materials – these all have their part to play and we should not underestimate their importance. However, we should not overlook the importance of broader education and understanding because right now your average SME business has no concept of the role they need to play or indeed how they will calculate their own carbon footprint.

This is not their fault – they simply don’t have access to the information, guidance and tools they need because in many cases they don’t yet exist. As an industry we have a huge amount of work ahead of us to navigate through this challenging and complex subject. We are still at the very beginning.

Robert Candy


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