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Carbon footprint – Challenges and solutions for the Construction Industry

Written By Ayad Chammas

The term “carbon footprint” was first introduced by the Carbon Trust in the UK in the year 2001.  Prior to that there were various scientific papers published in 1999 which introduced “ecological footprint” as a way to measure humanity’s impact on the planet’s ecosystem. In 2021, the UK along with India launched the industrial deep decarbonization initiative called the “UK – India joint statement on 2030 agenda for climate action”, to align government’s actions to create markets for low-carbon industrial products via work on data on standards and on procurement with support from Germany, Canada and the UAE. This initiative represents around 15 percent of global GDP, and it is expected that new country partners will join next year. Under the initiative several countries including the UK, have committed to disclosing embodied carbon data in all major construction projects by 2025. 

As the world races towards a sustainable future, the construction industry finds itself at the forefront of the green movement. Decarbonization of the built environment has become a hot topic in recent years, with many stakeholders pushing for cleaner, greener buildings. The construction industry ranks third after energy and transport among the topmost polluting industries globally Link hence, several global initiatives were put in place during the last decade, that are focused on decarbonizing the construction industry; 

  • The Paris Agreement adopted by (UNFCCC) in 2015, 
  • The Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction (GABC)
  • The World Green Building Council (WorldGBC)
  • The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development ( UN )
  • The International Energy Agency (IEA)

These initiatives promote best practices and drive the adoption of low-carbon solutions in the construction industry. The lingering question is, are the current initiatives making a meaningful impact to the extent that could mitigate the GHG emissions in the foreseeable future? And are they sufficient to drive the change required? or does the industry need additional catalysts.

Carbon footprint - Challenges and solutions for the Construction Industry

Residue-based geopolymers could replace cement-based concrete in the future, especially in corrosion-prone application environments such as wastewater systems or biowaste facilities. Image source: Lunghammer – TU Graz

Having experienced the construction on mega infrastructure projects worldwide, my answer would be no. The decarbonization of the construction industry faces several major challenges, a few listed below:

High initial costs: Low-carbon solutions often come with higher upfront costs, which can be a barrier for contractors and building owners who are looking to minimize their costs.

Resistance to change: The construction industry has been slow to adopt new technologies and materials, and many professionals are resistant to change.

Inefficient supply chains; The construction industry’s supply chains are often fragmented and inefficient, making it difficult to coordinate the use of low-carbon materials and equipment.

Inadequate regulations and incentives; There is a lack of clear regulations and incentives that encourage low-carbon construction practices, which makes it difficult for the industry to make the transition to a low-carbon future.

Lack of standardization in low-carbon construction practices, making it difficult for building owners, contractors, and designers to determine the best solutions for their projects.

Lack of affordable and standard tools for measuring the impact of low-carbon solutions: which makes it challenging to justify the investment in these solutions. 

Securing financing: Low-carbon construction projects often require large investments, and it can be difficult to secure the financing needed to make these projects a reality.

Carbon footprint - Challenges and solutions for the Construction Industry

The UK’s first Cement Free Ultra-low Carbon Concrete Building Block, Greenbloc.

There are major steps being taken by large cement and steel manufacturers to reduce the carbon footprint of the two main polluters in the industry, such as the use of renewable energy sources, as well as technologies to optimize the energy used / pollution outcome.  But is there anything else that can be done by the other industry players such as architects, contractors and developers, until such time the carbon policies and initiatives are fully implemented globally? The answer is yes. Several technologies can support the decarbonization of the construction industry, and transition to a greener construction industry. These are listed below.

 Low-carbon cements: These technologies produce cements that are made from waste materials, such as fly ash or slag, and have a lower energy demand and carbon footprint compared to Portland cement.

The use of 3D printed buildings/structures where we can construct the same structure functions but with much less cement or much less concrete.

“Green construction material” such as bricks, tiles, and hard building elements manufactured from recycled plastics / construction waste – these are state of the art technologies that re-use construction waste material with certain chemicals to produce have the potential to be disruptive if used on a larger scale. Unlike natural building materials, recycled ones aren’t necessarily renewable, but they are an option to mitigate the dependency of natural resources. Also known as “circular construction”, this type of building diverts waste from landfill to reuse as structural building blocks. 

Carbon footprint - Challenges and solutions for the Construction Industry

Netzero Home Technology – Link

Using recycled materials in construction is becoming so common that in Europe, they are now building structures where they can hold recycled building materials until they can be reused.

Ai based technology platforms that estimate and suggest mitigation plans for the CO2/GHG emissions. These solutions analyze planned projects and existing properties to make building operations and property life cycles more energy efficient via cloud-based software for emissions analysis. They also guide construction managers incorporate renewable energy systems into their buildings by taking into account the different components of construction such as the products, materials, and machinery, land, shipping, and transportation.

Net zero homes; these are modular dwellings that are custom designed and constructed to be carbon neutral. 

Composite (non-metal) rebar such as Glass Fiber Reinforced Polymer Rebar (GFRP Rebar), Carbon Fiber Reinforced Polymer Rebar (CFRP Rebar) and Basalt Fiber Reinforced Polymer Rebar (BFRP Rebar). 

Net zero mechanical components such as Lifts, and other energy efficient heating and cooling equipment, 

Low-carbon materials; The use of low-carbon materials, such as cross-laminated timber and bamboo, can reduce the carbon footprint of building construction.

Carbon footprint - Challenges and solutions for the Construction Industry

Completed in 2010, the 18th Street Bridge over the Assiniboine River in Brandon, Manitoba, Canada, features a deck reinforced with composite rebar supplied by Hughes Brothers. Source: Hughes Brothers Inc.

Opinion

It is currently not possible to eliminate the production of CO2 from the construction industry, however, it is possible to significantly reduce its emissions via the implementation of various technologies. The construction industry is fragmented and hence the carbon footprint comes from various sources, including the production of building materials like cement, steel, and glass, transportation of materials to construction sites, and on-site energy use during construction and occupancy. It’s great to hear the advances in steel and concrete but that doesn’t provide a score for a green building yet, Therefore, it’s critical to focus on the decarbonization components as opposed to products.  

The construction industry is one that has faced daunting challenges in the past yet has risen to meet them. Today, low carbon construction methods are a reality, and the firms working in this industry must adapt quickly to comply with regulations. The future is uncertain for the building sector but with forward-thinking design and implementation of new technology and processes, AEC firms can weather any storm. 

Ayad Chammas is a Construction and Engineering professional, Directing large infrastructure, oil & gas and renewable energy projects all over the world for the past three decades. He served as a senior executive in multinational infrastructure and Oil and Gas companies. Over the last decade, Ayad has been an active promoter of clean energy, investing in sectors such as EV and PV as well as Data Management and Fintech. He also serves on the board of several startups where he is also an investor and a partner in Nirman Ventures. 

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