Chief Product Officer, Peter Sayce has been talking to New Civil Engineer about what moves the UK construction industry must make to achieve Net Zero targets and limit its impact on the climate as one of the largest emitters.
The construction industry is a vital and thriving section of the UK economy. It contributes £90bn annually and provides 2.9M jobs in over 280,000 businesses. But, it is also one the highest carbon emitters and with operations that are far reaching it will be one of the most difficult to decarbonise by the Net Zero goal of 2050.
Since the climate crisis became a central focus of government policy, there have been numerous papers published including the UK government’s Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener. Pathways and targets have been set for the industry. These have all been aimed at helping construction start to make the necessary changes to become greener and more sustainable in the long term. Unfortunately as of yet they are struggling to have the desired effect without being bolstered by the correct support. According to a recent survey undertaken by Bramble Energy, less than half of construction firms believe they have a clear and achievable sustainability agenda in place for 2050 which just shows how far we are from a completely decarbonised sector.
We have seen some moves towards more sustainable projects and new ways of working but most of this has come from the largest construction firms who are more likely to have the resources and financial ability to make significant changes in their operations. For construction to really turn a new green leaf, every single contributor needs to be on the same page moving forward.
The biggest challenges are always the hardest but the most rewarding
There are so many carbon emitting elements to consider in the makeup of the industry. These include the creation of new builds from the ground up, plant machinery, and the production of materials to name just a few. It is not hard to see how it has become an overwhelming challenge for the sector. What we have seen so far is there are the means out there to make significant change. A great example is Wilmott Dixon, who have pledged to go net zero carbon by 2030 with ambitious energy efficient design and renewable technologies at the heart of their approach.
Green technologies will form a major part of how companies can limit their carbon output. The encouragement of widespread use will bring scale, leading to them being the most cost-efficient option for firms. This is where incentivisation from the government must come into play. Larger tenders like HS2 have put net zero at the centre of construction with a focus on only working with suppliers who can provide reduced carbon solutions. This will have to become the norm. Firms who are not considering carbon output in their operations must pay the price in the long run.
Another clean energy solution starting to make headway is the use of hydrogen – a good fit for the heavy emitting construction industry. Its versatile abilities mean it can replace diesel generators with little or no change to the end consumer but offers a much cleaner process of working. Mace Group, who are striving to phase out diesel generators by 2026, announced they had formed a strategic partnership with AFC Energy, hydrogen technology specialist, to trial and scale hydrogen in hard-to-abate activities across the sector including the use of hydrogen generators on selected construction sites across the UK.
Integration of these new processes must also be considered when thinking about the existing built environment. Retrofitting has to play an integral role in the strategy moving forward. There are an estimated 29M buildings across the UK that need to be retrofitted, a task likely to fall on smaller firms. An investment now in the workforce and the skills needed to make these buildings the most energy efficient they can be, is vital in creating a fully sustainable environment. Significant skill shortages in areas such as energy have been highlighted in recent years as hampering the move towards Net Zero. This needs to be addressed so new sustainable techniques and processes can be deployed at scale and speed.
Collaboration will lead the way forward to success
For the industry as a whole, the sharing of knowledge and resources will be key. This should go across businesses and sectors, but also governing bodies and government. For firms that have already been able to work with new technology, energies and create ways of working to meet sustainability targets, it will be vital to share knowledge, so it filters all the way down. Everyone will benefit.
A significant issue, highlighted in our survey, is the lack of understanding of how these targets are relevant across the board and where best for companies to start in changing the way in which they operate. The only real answer to this is knowledge sharing. Collaboration is critical if we are to see rapid inroads on our shared net zero ambitions.