It is now two years since the UK became the first major world economy to pass laws to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to 'net zero' by 2050.
This bold decision stemmed from the Paris Agreement of 2015, which aimed to limit harmful global warnings by reference to pre-industrial levels. Although the immediate impact on emissions may well be like applying the brakes to a supertanker, the rate of change across the UK economy driven by the goal of 'net zero' is already becoming exponential.
When companies with backgrounds like Shell are telling their customers that they are bringing their entire operation to be net-zero, including the emissions from all of the fossil fuels that they sell, it is clear that we are experiencing a seismic shift for the global economy.
The thumbscrews are already being tightened further, too. In April 2021, the UK government's sixth carbon budget was revealed, which included a target to cut emissions by 78% from 1990 levels as soon as 2035.
It is already clear that net-zero is likely to become one of, if not the, most significant drivers of change within the construction industry over the next 30 years and indeed even within the next decade. Construction is already becoming a key area of focus (including some criticism), primarily due to two key factors. First, construction is the industry which does, of course, produce our built environment, which is said to contribute between 20% and 40% of the UK's total carbon footprint depending on whether or not the energy used in buildings by appliances and so on (and also on whether or not associated infrastructure contributions) are included in the calculations. Secondly, the construction activities themselves generate approximately 10% of UK emissions directly, which is significant.
Therefore, the industry will have to innovate, make substantial changes and large investments, including technologies that do not exist yet. The opportunities in renewable energy 'plants' and large-scale carbon capture are already evident, but it is the developments that will occur in the process of construction that will be fascinating and, to a large extent, probably somewhat unpredictable. Here, we take a broad look at what is happening and why and we aim to focus is on specific developments when they arise.
There are, of course, initiatives to 'green' the existing building estate. Given that the UK Green Building Council estimates that 80% of the UK's 2050 building stock already exists right now, this cannot be underestimated. The Royal Institute of British Architects has set a target that operational energy consumption should fall to only a third of current levels in the next decade within both new build and major retro-fit schemes.
Another key future target will inevitably be making sure that whatever is yet to be built achieves increasingly stringent sustainability standards. Energy efficiency, particularly relating to heating/cooling systems, is one aspect of this. The Committee on Climate Change has already made recommendations with gas boilers to be phased out and replaced with air/ground/water-source heat pumps and shared heat networks. Some new build developments are already reaching completion where a deliberate decision has been made not to install any gas main to the property at all. This is truly a new world.
A further element is the materials' carbon footprint from source to site, yet another is the carbon footprint of the processes needed to install those materials. Modern methods of construction advocates are already extolling the virtues of their approach on both counts. The Welsh Government has decided to build all of its affordable homes in timber frame starting next year, leading to a ripple effect of novel partnership arrangements and procurement processes.
Increased plant efficiency will be an instant and repeatable win for contractors and sub-contractors, as will switching to / insisting upon more sustainable supply chains.
Net-zero still allows the release of CO2, as long as it is at least matched by carbon offsetting or capture. So we may well see building sites generating power through solar or other technologies during the build phase, where space and layout permits.
We are already seeing project participants demanding transparency on 'green credentials', and these will get more and more stringent and eventually more scientific/specific. There will have to be a move from "are you taking steps to reduce the carbon footprint of your company, the supply chain, the building when it is operating (and in some cases all of these)" to "what is the net carbon effect of each phase expressed in CO2e ppmv and can you demonstrate compliance?"
Developers and employers will not just drive these requirements under building contracts, who will be committing to net zero and needing to demonstrate it in all they do. It will also involve those who interact with those developers and employers, such as customers, funders, shareholders and even politicians and campaigners/protest groups who will want to see the change occurring. Even lenders are offering incentives to developers that are prepared to employ sustainable development methods.
The demanding targets will likely be set through new and evolving legislation, amendments to building regulations and guidance, which will set increasingly stringent targets as technology catches up and surpasses the aims of the policies. Policy initiatives will doubtless begin to influence some of the choices taken with some established products and technologies being banned. It could very well be a case of 'innovate or die' for some manufacturers and sub-contractors.
The way that specific carbon footprints are measured and recorded will also inevitably evolve and become a central tenet of procurement and 'as built' records. Organisations will also need to consider how they will report their progress to regulators, shareholders, the media and other interested parties.
Building Information Modelling (BIM) may prove reliable and accurate that the regulations could be passed by the theoretical performance and attributes of a 'digital twin' model even if the actual building does not ultimately strictly comply, but so much remains to be seen over the next 29 years.
The Construction Leadership Council has launched its "CO2nstructZero" scheme and identified nine far-reaching priorities for initial focus, grouped under three main headings:
- Accelerating the shift to zero-emission vehicles and onsite plant;
- Maximising the use of Modern Methods of Construction;
- Championing developments that enable connectivity with low carbon modes of transport and zero-emission vehicle-readiness
- Retro-fit to improve energy efficiency;
- Boost capability for low carbon heat solutions
- Boost energy performance of new and existing buildings
- Carbon measurement to allow quantifiable decisions;
- Becoming world leaders in designing out carbon and circular economy;
- Innovate with low carbon materials (prioritising concrete and steel), manufacturing and distribution
The CLC aims to co-ordinate and consolidate actions and plans devised by other specific groups, so is not so much setting rigid pathways as helping the industry to identify transparent goals and helping it innovate to reach them
A failure to comply with relevant legislation and/or regulations would be similar to today's position, i.e. it would expose employers/developers to fines and possibly even criminal convictions and constitute a breach of contract (and liability in damages) for most contractors and subcontractors. This could become a high-risk game where novel technology may well often be at 'the cutting edge', so contractors and subcontractors should be wary of signing up to stringent performance specification requirements and the potentially huge liabilities if they are ultimately not achieved.
In June 2021, the first new board members of the Interim Office for Environmental Protection were appointed. When the Environment Bill is passed, this body will go on to have a statutory remit to advise the Government and hold public authorities/businesses to account for their implementation of environmental law (including at least some of the net-zero goals) and commencing legal action in extreme cases. But we are very much in the framework stage at the moment.
Insurance will potentially need to be tailored to meet the specific requirements of projects. It is unlikely to be cheap, especially at first when the ability of the industry to meet increasingly stringent requirements is unknown.
There are already many groups and organisations driving change, such as the UK Green Building Council. Still, there are also many broader-reach organisations setting up their own net-zero specific groups or champions.
There are also developments in the legal sector, such as the Chancery Lane Project, which seeks to provide effective standard clauses emphasising the outcome of a project from a climate perspective and not just a commercial one.
Now is undoubtedly the time to see what relevant sector groups are saying and doing and even join the debate and perhaps even help shape some potentially very malleable policy.