If, like me, you read Building regularly, you may know that I’ve written before that the biggest challenge facing our industry is an environmental one. So I welcomed the announcements of COP26 over the past two weeks, but now share Alok Sharma’s disappointment that the commitments did not go further and that progress is not accelerating.
In early 2020, I started thinking about the opportunities the new decade could bring. We are now almost two years past that point and since then the government has published its Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener, which sets out its “Policies and Proposals to Decarbonise All Sectors of the UK Economy to Achieve Our Net Zero Target by 2050” are set out “.
Then came the heat and the buildings Strategy of creating a path for residential, commercial, industrial and public buildings.
And in the past 18 months there have been industry initiatives including the Construction Leadership Council’s Green Construction Board and the CLC’s CO2nstruct Zero Performance Framework, the combined strength of 34 professional associations – brought together by the Construction Industry Council, the UK Green Building Council and many leading players within the industry, like us at RLB UK – make a commitment to the zero carbon pledge and become a net zero carbon business champion.
This investment is only the tip of the iceberg in solving the challenge of how to effectively heat our homes
The promise of the Federal Chancellor in his autumn budget to support 90,000 air heat pumps in the next three years was also promising, although this investment is obviously only the tip of the iceberg in solving the challenge, such as with around 29 million apartments and the need for full insulation of the building structure we heat our homes effectively.
That was much more interesting Government announcement of the first wave of Â£ 160m out of the Â£ 3.8bn Social Housing Decarbonization Fund being set aside over the next 10 years to carry out innovative social housing retrofit projects that also meet the ambitions of the Support clean growth strategy, upgrade as many homes as possible to EPC C by 2050 – certainly a great blueprint for other public institutions, but also for private retrofits.
All the good news and great initiatives to increase the environmental challenges we face today. However, as many of us know, statistics show that around 40% of all UK CO2 emissions come from the built environment sector. On top of that, 32% of landfill waste comes from the construction and demolition of buildings and 13% of the products delivered to construction sites are directly dumped unused and there is no doubt that we still have a long way to go towards a sustainable future.
We also know that while many have embarked on their carbon reduction journey and pledged to be net zero by 2030 or even go carbon negative like Microsoft, however, achieving a greener future with more than just carbon is. This was of course recognized at COP26, where 105 countries, including the UK, pledged to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030.
The only way to truly achieve a more sustainable planet is to take a holistic view of our environmental impact
As staunch environmentalist Sir David Attenborough pointed out in his emotional COP26 address, the only way to make a more sustainable planet is to think holistically about our environmental impact. So for us in construction, that means thinking about air quality, biodiversity, water use, the impact of demolition, and the materials we use on site and put them in landfills – effectively from design to demolition – and sometimes even thinking about whether should be built at all.
In the meantime, we also need to think about the next piece of the sustainability puzzle. How do we deal with the resulting surge in electricity demand and how do we manage our UK energy sources while reducing our consumption of gas and oil?
Last week the UK government agreed to fund the development of mini-nuclear reactors for carbon-free energy. With the plan for an energy consortium to build 16 SMRs across the country, slated to go online by 2031, it is estimated that each reactor could power nearly 1.3 million homes.
As we move towards a future where fossil fuels are reduced or not burned, we need to think about how to get the amount of electricity and energy we need to cope with all the different ways we need to generate electricity to operate this new world we will live in.
Fostering the discussion about a greener world is key to raising awareness of what we need to do. However, action is now the order of the day.
Encouraging challenges and contributions from a very diverse spectrum of employees and stakeholders is an easy step in transforming our personal and business conduct towards the environment.
Change is a journey that must be taken step by step. Only by making sure we understand the actions and responsibilities we have as individuals and as an industry, and the impact the built environment has on society, community and the environment in its broadest sense, can we truly understand the damage we have already done contain and protect the future of our world. This is the only way we can build on a greener and better future.
Ann Bentley is the Global Board Director of Rider Levett Bucknall, a member of the Construction Leadership Council and a contributor to the Value Toolkit
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