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Construction and net zero: What are the main challenges?

Being the sixth highest carbon emitting industry in Britain, tackling carbon emissions is a huge challenge for the construction sector.

Net zero means not adding to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Achieving net zero requires heavily reducing emissions, on top of balancing out any that remain by eliminating an equivalent amount. Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, 197 countries agreed to try to keep temperature rises ‘well below’ 1.5C. Climate experts believe that to achieve this, net zero must be attained by 2050.

In 2021, the UK government released its Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener. The strategy maps out government expectations within the construction industry in relation to decarbonising.

The drive to decarbonise in an industry that produces vast volumes of carbon emissions brings both challenge and opportunity. Here are some of the key challenges facing construction in the drive to net zero.

Transition to carbon-efficient methods and materials

The sector must find ways to reduce emissions in the materials it uses and the way it builds. The most common materials used to build are steel and concrete, both of which create significant carbon emissions.

The industry as a whole is collaborating with material manufacturers and academics to find ways to produce lower carbon materials and processes. Research, development and implementation costs however remain high. The government must continue to develop policies and incentives to support this innovation.

Decarbonise Britain’s heat supply

To help the construction sector achieve net zero, Britain must decarbonise its heat supply. This will require a radical shift from carbon-based heat to renewable forms of energy. The government’s Heat and Buildings Strategy published in 2021 sets out a strategy to how the country will decarbonise commercial, industrial and public sector buildings.

Making goals realistic and achievable

For many construction firms, net zero simply is not yet practical and realistic and the biggest challenge is making it realistic. Achieving net zero in building requires a simplified approach that follows a series of steps, including passive design optimisation, reducing operational energy demand and consumption, eliminating fossil fuels, providing onsite renewable energy and storage where possible, limiting upfront embodied carbon, considering whole life carbon in conjunction with whole life costing, and publicly disclosing performance annually using an embodied carbon database.

Regulatory landscape

Another leading challenge for construction companies is the regulatory landscape. Construction firms have expressed concerns about existing planning regulations needing to change to support the sector if it is to reach the net zero target.

Nigel Lynn

Nigel is an entrepreneurial leader with an extensive track record in building and developing recruitment organisations over the last 25 years, ultimately growing and selling his own business.