Comment: Clearer direction needed to hit net zero in construction

Simon Richards is Sustainability Director with Sir Robert McAlpine

Simon Richards writes about how the construction industry is taking the lead ahead of the Government when it comes to setting targets to achieve net zero in the industry.

There are no actions without consequence, and what’s abundantly clear is that over the years the built environment has had a detrimental effect on the natural one. Whilst our industry has been responsible for delivering the infrastructure that society has needed to grow and thrive, it has come at a significant environmental cost. But that doesn’t have to be the case going forward.

We have an opportunity, and more importantly a need, to reinvent the delivery of the built environment so that it works with our natural systems and acts as a mechanism for environmental and economic prosperity.

Decarbonising the built environment is one of the challenges of our times. When we come to talk about success, it cannot be measured by one individual company’s ability to deliver. The true measure will be when the entire industry and value chain involved are working together to address the problems.


The age of collaboration and partnerships
Collaborations and partnerships will be key to addressing the scale of change that is needed within the existing timescale. However, true collaboration, which is open, transparent, and has its fair share of risks and opportunities, is only attainable from Government policy change.

The UK Government have set a legal requirement for the UK to be Net-Zero Carbon (NZC) by 2050. With the built environment responsible for 25% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, we have a significant contribution to make in achieving this ambition.

Whilst knowing the end game is all well and good, we first need to understand how we are going to get there. We need clear trajectory. There is no silver bullet, and we will require a whole package of measures to enable the industry to decarbonise, supported and driven by the Government.

Requirements to decarbonise are entering public procurement requirements, but there is a significant gap in private sector requirements. Recently introduced legislation is centred around reporting (SECR, PPN06/21, TCFDs) and whilst it’s important to get reporting mechanisms established and embed governance, we cannot rely solely on lagging measures to drive the cultural change needed.

Industry taking the lead
However, the construction sector has not stood still waiting for the Government to take action. Driven by consumer demand and the desire to de-risk future assets, the industry has been addressing the NZC agenda.

Collaborative groups like LETI have been established to garner best practice and shape what good looks like. And more recently a cross industry working group led by BBP, BRE, the Carbon Trust, CIBSE, IStructE, LETI, RIBA, RICS, and UKGBC have joined forces to champion a NZC building standard which looks to develop a single agreed methodology to develop NZC built assets in line with our nation’s climate targets.

Projects like 100 Liverpool Street, for British Land, which surpassed an industry-leading embodied carbon target nearly a decade ahead of schedule, demonstrate that construction in the UK is able to make the move towards net zero.

However, across the industry, projects like these remain pockets of excellence, not commonplace, and the Government has an obligation to use the existing built environment governance to make sure that we embed NZC requirements and consistently deliver at every level.

What’s needed
To help force the issue, the Environmental Audit Committee recently presented the Government with a series of recommendations. These included the introduction of a mandatory requirement for whole-life carbon assessments for buildings which is fully incorporated in building regulations and the planning system; the introduction of carbon targets for buildings to align with the UK’s net zero goals; the efficient and more effective use of low-carbon building materials; and the need for the Government to take this action by the end of 2022 at the latest (and introduced no later than December 2023).

With the industry currently grappling with a difficult economic landscape, in the absence of any persuasion or incentive from the Government, it’s conceivable that the engaged few will shift to focus on short term issues and forget more perceived longer-term risks like Climate Change. This is why it’s essential that the Government collaborate with the industry to come up with the plan to decarbonise the built environment, taking the expertise already there and directing it for the betterment of the industry.

We work together and we can all begin to take our fair equitable share of the risks and opportunities, delivering what we need to together.