Report: UK’s construction sector won’t reach net-zero without circular economy focus

Published today (8 March), the report confirms that the construction sector is the UK’s biggest user of non-renewable materials and the biggest producer of waste. In 2018, the report states, construction, demolition and excavation generated almost two-thirds (62%) of the country’s waste.

Given that much of the raw material used is high in embodied carbon, a failure to make the construction sector more circular will likely mean it is unable to reach net-zero in line with the Government’s legally binding 2050 deadline, Green Alliance warns.

The report notes that, while the Government has been developing and refining policies on the operational emissions of buildings – which, themselves, have been criticised for loopholes and a lack of ambition – less policy progress has been made in tackling embodied carbon. Embodied carbon refers to emissions generated upstream, before a building is completed, such as emissions associated with materials and construction processes.

Green Alliance makes the case in the report that, at a time of increasing material processes, reducing embodied carbon by improving material efficiency, material reuse and sustainable material procurement is increasingly becoming a cost-saving measure. Indeed, for some businesses, it may be necessary to stay afloat.

Green Alliance is calling on the UK government to lead by example and set a target to reduce raw material use in construction by at least one-third by 2035. Targets could be steeper for the most carbon-intensive materials and should be applicable in the private and public sector.

Key to delivering this target will be ensuring that developers can reuse materials already in use without facing unnecessary policy barriers. The report recommends that the Government axes VAT for retrofit projects, given that new-build projects have a zero rate of VAT. It argues that this could incentivise developers to consider retrofitting before opting for demolition.

Beyond tax incentives, the report floats the idea of binding targets to allow fewer demolitions. It is estimated that around 50,000 buildings are demolished every year in the UK.

Beyond retrofitting, data is a big focus of the report. In order to prove their reduction in material use, many businesses will need to collect and produce better data. The Green Alliance report makes the case for better data collection via a new ‘material passports’ system that tracks sustainability information on the components and products used at a particular project. Learnings could be drawn from other ‘passport’ requirements across the world, such as the EU’s battery passport scheme.

Green Alliance believes that, if implemented in full, the recommendations in this report would lead to a 39% reduction in absolute annual emissions from the UK’s construction sector by 2035. This calculation covers both emissions generated within the UK and overseas in material supply chains.

The Circular Economy Task Force, convened by Green Alliance, is the body which commissioned the report. It enables businesses to collaborate on circular economy innovations and to engage with policymakers collectively. The UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) has also welcomed the report’s launch, following the publication of its own circular economy analysis last year.

UKGBC’s senior sustainability advisor Kai Liebentanz said: “Achieving a circular economy requires a fundamental systems-level change in our economy. Government action is critical for achieving this change and creating the right enabling conditions. This report highlights the power of a circular economy to drastically reduce carbon emissions and resource use, as well as how both industry and government can step up to the challenge and deliver.”

Last year, the World Green Building Council launched a new Circularity Accelerator to help deliver its target for members to achieve zero-waste-to-landfill by 2030 and to deliver net-zero life-cycle emissions by 2050.

RICS outreach

In related news, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) has this week launched a new consultation on the latest edition of its Whole Life Carbon Assessment for the Built Environment.

The framework has been designed for use by RICS’s 130,000+ member organisations globally, helping them to measure and reduce emissions across the entire life-cycle of all built assets and infrastructure. Data can be held and shared more easily, too.

RICS is seeing this edition of the framework being applied to several projects in the early design stages in the UK on a voluntary basis. It is advocating for more developers to use the framework and also engaging with policymakers on the tool.

RICS president Ann Gray said the consultation, which closes on 18 April, is “crucial” for the net-zero transition in the sector.

Gray said: “Our greatest asset is our members; their knowledge and experiences are second-to-none. This consultation is a historic opportunity for all of us to shape the sector’s response to the global challenge of climate change and make a profoundly positive difference to our planet.

“The international scope of this consultation will enrich the breadth and diversity of insight we gain.  This is important as we recognise that nations and their respective built environment sectors are at different stages in their response to the climate crisis. The global nature of our consultation will ensure that the final output is capable of adoption around the world while retaining its role as the principal methodology recognised in the UK.”

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