Is Net Zero Carbon Construction Really Possible?

Most of us remember the Extinction Rebellion’s protests in 2019 against climate change. Whilst they caused untold disruption at the time – maybe they went a bit too much over the top and lost some of their impact – no one can deny the media attention they drew towards the impact of climate change on the UK.

What many don’t know is that the same year, on 30th April 2019 to be exact, the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) launched their climate change document, titled Net Zero Carbon Buildings: A Framework Definition.  Aimed at the construction industry and the need for action in order to reduce carbon emissions in this sector, what does net zero carbon construction really mean, and is it possible?

What is net zero carbon construction?

According to the UKGBC, their definition of net zero carbon construction is “when the amount of carbon emissions associated with a building’s product and construction stages up to practical completion is zero or negative, through the use of offsets or the net export of the on-site renewable energy.

Construction businesses are expected to demonstrate and adopt low or zero carbon initiatives as part of the building projects.  This means that a building project has to ensure that its sources are zero, which includes:

  • The impact of operational water and energy;
  • The impact of the construction including extracting materials, manufacturing, transport to and from the site, installation, wastage, repair and replacement, as well as refurbishment;
  • Energy benefits to all users;
  • Reuse of materials once the project is completed; and 
  • The benefit from permanently sequestered carbon (if any).

Measures towards net zero carbon construction 

Construction contributes 39% of all global carbon emissions – that is a staggering figure.  The World Green Building Council’s Advancing Net Zero Commitment is supported, indeed has been signed, by governments, cities, property investors and many other investors, and many more want to apply its best practices.  

There are 7 steps to achieving net zero carbon for building projects:

  • Reducing the demand for virgin materials;
  • Reducing the demand for fossil energy;
  • Reducing the requirement for replacement materials;
  • Repurposing existing materials and buildings;
  • Design construction projects that are adaptable; deconstruct and reuse;
  • Replacing fossil energy in other areas;
  • Sequestering (biogenic) carbon.

Is it possible to achieve net zero carbon emissions?

According to a landmark report from the International Energy Agency, yes, it is possible to achieve net zero emissions by the deadline of 2050.  Whilst the construction industry is embracing the changes required in terms of energy efficiency when designing and building new homes and offices, the carbon emissions side is not being fully adopted, and it’s not currently under Government policy.  

The construction industry has a huge opportunity to adopt sustainability and zero carbon development initiatives, such as low carbon materials and the transport that is used, thereby reducing their carbon footprint.  

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has just launched a new inquiry into the sustainability of the construction industry, looking at the carbon footprint that is left by the construction of buildings and how sustainable are the materials used – it might not make pretty reading.

The Climate Change Committee has also made their recommendations for minimising the carbon impact from constructing new buildings, and developing best practices that can be adopted – so far, many of these recommendations have not been taken on board.  

Add to the mix the Government’s published response in January 2021 to the consultation on the Future Home Standard – it has said that all new homes have to be highly energy efficient, with low carbon heating and zero carbon ready by 2025.  Whilst this is eminently possible for new construction projects, the problem comes with the 19 million already constructed homes that do not meet net zero carbon requirements.

There are great government-backed initiatives out there for replacing windows and heating systems, such as heat pumps and cooling systems, and more efficient lighting.  However, it relies on the owners of these buildings to take up the support and pay out to implement these changes – that’s where the plan may fall down.

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