Tackling carbon emissions is a huge challenge for the construction sector. The industry is worth some £117Bn, equating to around 6% of the UK’s total economy. It employs 2.4 million people and is the sixth highest carbon emitting industry in the UK.
In 2021, the UK government released its Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener which includes the expectations the government has on the construction industry to decarbonise. However, setting targets is one thing but planning how best for companies, large & small, to achieve these is another.
In this Q&A, Peter Sayce, Chief Product Officer at Bramble Energy talks to UK Construction Online about the main challenges construction faces when looking to tackle carbon emissions and the support that is available.
What are the main challenges facing construction in meeting net zero targets?
Given the green field nature of much construction work and the challenges related to accessing clean grid power, it’s little surprise that the construction sector reportedly accounts for nearly 40% of CO2 emissions. But with the International Energy Agency (IEA) projecting a 6% per year reduction in CO2 emissions being required to achieve net zero, including an interim reduction in CO2 of 50% by 2030, the challenge is significant.
Core materials are a major part of this, with zero carbon steel or concrete being potential alternatives. Another big challenge is the heavy reliance on red diesel. Electrified or hydrogen powered plant are an increasingly viable alternative to diesel powered equipment and battery, solar or hydrogen generators will be increasingly available. There will be costs associated with this change, but the imminent price increase in red diesel may be an incentive to help companies make the transition.
What are leading construction bodies doing to help the sector transition to a low carbon economy?
There’s a significant push to help the sector transition to a low carbon economy and it’s starting with the private sector. JCB recently announced that they’re spending £100M on “super-efficient hydrogen engines” to power its machinery, as well as signing a major deal to bring green hydrogen into the UK. Then there are organisations like Select who have partnered with Liebherr to bring electric crawler cranes into the UK. Electrification of major plant is a huge statement from industry, but it also shows that clients are starting to demand zero carbon alternatives to the traditional equipment.
Importantly, the low carbon economy is more than construction bodies. The sector can only truly adopt a new technology, such as hydrogen, when you have cost-effective supply and distribution of the fuel. This is where the UK government’s £400M investment in hydrogen generation is key. Only when you match supply with authentic demand can you have an effective economy.
Do construction companies have the right skills in place for net zero?
Achieving net zero will draw on new skills, such as in the sustainability teams that are being created in some of the larger construction companies. These teams drive strategy, inform procurement decisions, and measure the impact of the operation. Beyond this though, net zero will mostly need an evolution of the skills we see today, rather than a drastic change.
Using zero or reduced carbon materials will need training, as will application of the control systems that can drive improved efficiency from large plant. Introducing new technology, like hydrogen fuel cells, should be no different. Usability will be a major barrier to the adoption of new zero carbon technologies, such that if major reskilling is needed, then companies in any sector will be less likely to adopt that technology. So new technologies, including hydrogen generators, must deliver as similar as possible user experience to the traditional generators .
If the government is set to fail on its net zero ambitions, as some media suggest, why should I bother going through the process?
This cannot and shouldn’t be the collective thought of Industry and the businesses within it. It is the businesses that must lead the way as we transition away from fossil fuels. They have the knowledge of where green solutions are best placed to get the most optimised results. This is an important role as it will inform government on how to shape future policy, ultimately making it easier for targets to be met.
The UK government has set some fairly aggressive net zero ambitions and, with its current high carbon contribution, the construction sector has a significant role to play in achieving this. The government will likely try and achieve their ambition by setting standards, through driving more sustainability-focused buying decisions, especially in significant public sector tenders, and by incentivising increased green-tech in the private sector.
At the same time we’re seeing some fantastic initiatives being undertaken by major players in the private sector, who are recognising the increased importance being placed on net zero by investors, shareholders, and importantly, their customers. Shifting to green technologies and fuels does introduce a short-term cost; however, with the cost of red diesel about to increase, now is a great time to start doing this and think about the cost as an investment in ensuring a more successful and valuable business in the future.
Will there be consequences / penalties for my business if we don’t get it?
There are already consequences for businesses that aren’t working towards net zero. Several major tenders, like HS2, are requesting reduced carbon solutions. It’s the same across Europe, where in some countries bids for public tenders are weighted by emissions, so more expensive “clean” offers can be selected over cheaper ones with higher emissions. Not adapting means some companies won’t be eligible to bid for major public work.
The same will apply in the private sector, where clients, shareholders and investors will increasingly demand reduced or zero carbon solutions. Companies that don’t adapt will be less competitive and find it increasingly difficult to win new work.
Then there’s the imminent red diesel cost increase and in Europe we’re starting to see carbon taxation for industrial emissions. Who’d bet against a similar approach hitting the UK one day?
What support is there to help my company reduce emissions?
Thankfully there is support out there to implement carbon cutting solutions – if you know where to look. The government has set up several finance packages and support for construction businesses to apply for. As we get further down the timeline towards achieving net zero these will increase and encourage more private sector investment.
Of course, each application varies greatly in terms of monetary value and stipulations on the businesses that can apply but the place to start is the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and UK Research and Innovation where they list all available financial packages by Industry. From here you can narrow down what is applicable to you and your business. These range from grants that can aid in adopting low carbon technologies across your business operations, improving energy efficiency and funding towards the upskilling of new and existing staff to future proof your workforce as net zero targets near. The application process does take time, but it is worth it to secure longevity for your business especially as it will become increasingly more difficult to function within the industry without making the necessary moves to greener and more efficient processes.
Aside from the UK Government there are other bodies that are also great sources of information such as CITB (Construction Industry Training Board), CIC (Construction Industry Council) and the CLC (Construction Leadership Council) which all have funding sections with valuable information and also case studies of successful projects already happening up and down the UK.
Why aren’t more companies applying for funding?
Resources, time and lack of visibility have all aided in companies perhaps not being aware what they could be applicable for to achieve net zero. What hits the headlines is the targets the government sets. there is no follow through from that on what support is available to reach those targets. The most important thing to remember is the more companies pick up on what they can access and apply for, it helps shape future policy and support and can also aid in collaboration between businesses and across industries.
Our survey highlighted 81% of the construction industry has not yet taken advantage of the hydrogen-related funding schemes available to them, listing lack of awareness and prioritisation of other activities as reasons. Clearly there must be better communications of these programmes, but for hydrogen the challenge is more complex.
Despite nearly half of the UK construction industry not being confident they’ll achieve net zero by 2050, uptake of hydrogen technology is still low. Concerns related to cost, safety and usability were all highlighted in our survey. This shows the hydrogen and technology sector clearly needs to do much more in educating users of the benefits, as well as making sure the products we deliver offer a user experience that is the same if not better than the products in use today.
For construction employers: what are the key takeaways from the Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener and the Heat and Buildings Strategy?
With a third of all UK carbon emissions coming from the heating of homes and workspaces, the Net Zero Strategy sets some focused goals. The Heat and Buildings Strategy sets a goal to decarbonise the heat and buildings sector by between 47% to 62% by 2035. New funding of £3.9 billion has been pledged for this. Core to this is the phase out and replacement of gas boilers by 2035, with low carbon technologies, such as heat pumps and hydrogen boilers proposed as alternatives.
This needs the alternative to be as cost effective and efficient as gas boilers. The strategy also recognises the need for skilled people to deliver this change and proposes to support up to 175,000 new jobs by 2030. The Net Zero Strategy aims to deliver on the Government’s levelling-up agenda and support 240,000 skilled green jobs by 2035, concentrated on areas of the UK where investment is needed most. We need to support employers to invest in the right green training and government must deliver on a pipeline of work that will give employers the confidence to invest in new skills.
The strategy also sets strong targets for transportation, including the end of sales of new petrol and diesel vans from 2030 and all non-zero emission vehicles by 2040 including HGVs. Whilst we currently have nearly half of the UK construction industry not being confident that they will achieve net zero by 2050, some significant change is coming that’s going to make change happen sooner than we might expect.
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