Insights and Advice for Enabling More Efficient and Sustainable Construction

Decarbonizing Construction: The What, Why, And How

13 June, 2024
21 mins read

Every year when we celebrate Earth Overshoot Day, the ecological overrun becomes more and more obvious. According to the Global Footprint Network, this is a watershed moment since it marks the year when the Earth’s natural resource consumption will surpass its regeneration potential. Earth Overshoot Day is a stark reminder of the critical importance of decarbonization and climate action.

The Global Footprint Network announces the date for Earth Overshoot Day of the running year on June 5, which is also World Environment Day. Earth Overshoot Day 2024 fell on August 1.

Earth Overshoot Day
Earth Overshoot Day

Rising sea levels, melting polar ice caps, destructive wildfires, and other extreme weather occurrences are all signs of the present climate crisis. Consider the devastating wildfires that swept through Australia in 2019 and 2020, causing widespread devastation and grief. These wildfires were made worse by global warming, endangered species, and ecosystems.

In light of these catastrophic dangers, the need for decarbonization is growing rapidly. Its primary goal is to decrease emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by increasing energy efficiency and shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The importance of decarbonization is being recognized by more and more countries, and these nations are setting lofty goals to become carbon neutral.

What Is Decarbonization?

It literally means the reduction of carbon; it’s about phasing out man-made carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions into the atmosphere, with the eventual goal of removing them.

The 2015 Paris Agreement set out an ambitious goal: to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, and preferably to 1.5 degrees compared to pre-industrial levels, the threshold below which the Earth must stay to avoid the worst climate impact according to IPCC’s report. It also finds that global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide would need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050.

In this blog, we will be talking about decarbonization in the construction industry, including understanding why decarbonization in the industry is needed, how to measure embodied carbon, and what can companies do to decarbonize construction.

What is Decarbonization in Construction?

Decarbonization in the construction industry encompasses all of the efforts being taken to reduce the carbon emissions resulting from the processes involved in building and maintaining the structures in the built environment.

Decarbonization in the construction industry is about cutting carbon emissions related to the production, use, and even disposal of anything that goes into a building. That covers everything from building materials to construction techniques to the operation of the finished structure. Switching from carbon-heavy supply chains, as when the industry uses mixes of concrete and adhesives to secure many types of structures, is one way to reduce emissions. A 2019 conference presentation by Thorton Tomasetti, an engineering firm, cited potentially 12 percent less carbon being emitted by using mixtures that need less adhesives.

Decarbonization In Construction Overview
Decarbonization In Construction Overview

The act of decarbonizing construction has far more advantages to offer than just environmental conservation, especially in the building sector. When we talk about decarbonizing construction, we are mostly talking about reducing carbon emissions in the building process—how much carbon a building emits during its construction, operation, and eventual demolition. But construction decarbonization can provide other benefits, too, and can be an enabler of building better buildings.

Decrease in the Environmental Impact

Decarbonization limits environmental damage and combats climate change. It achieves these aims by cutting the carbon footprint of construction work. Building materials and the means of construction must no longer depend on coal, oil, and gas. The process must become “low-carbon” or “carbon-constraining,” and has to be a part of what nature does – in other words, it has to use materials that come from renewable resources and must also minimize the use and disposal of construction materials to avoid building up a stock of them that ends up being a carbon sink.

Energy Efficiency and Cost Savings

Using less energy saves money. Programs that improve energy efficiency can save money and energy in the long run. To overcome the many different types of market obstacles to energy efficiency, they employ a broad variety of operational, equipment, and technological activities. Saving money and reducing the need for new power plants are two goals of national and local initiatives that encourage energy efficiency and the use of energy-efficient technology and practices.

Making the move toward decarbonization has a lasting impact on the energy efficiency of buildings. It’s one of the most effective changes we can make to reduce our overall carbon emissions. It yields not only lower operational expenses and energy consumption but also space that is healthier and more sustainable to work in. Energy savings from utility costs can be quite significant. And that is a promise that we can make when we boost our building energy codes to take advantage of good science and best practices.

Innovation and Technological Advancement

Advancements in technology and revolutionary ideas can work wonders. They are the lifeblood of corporations all around the world. Every year, businesses spend millions, if not billions, of dollars, trying to come up with the next big thing, which will improve their bottom line or the world we live in. Furthermore, innovation and technological advancement, by their very nature, produce new jobs and new kinds of jobs. They are the spark that ignites the fire of entrepreneurship.

Building decarbonization is an exciting time for the building industry, and the construction of buildings is a large part of this movement. It is pushing the development of the use of sustainable building materials, digital construction technologies, and new techniques of construction. These materials and improvements allow for the utilization of much greener energies to be used in the construction and the lifespan of a building.  Because today’s building decision-makers have an amazing palette of construction possibilities with which to work, they are also able to create by far the most energy-efficient, low-carbon, and net-zero buildings that have ever existed.

Health and Well-being

Decarbonization improves environmental quality and boosts occupant health and well-being by lowering indoor air pollution, increasing natural daylighting, and encouraging greater ventilation and thermal comfort. Healthy and more livable places are created by sustainable buildings, which are linked to decreased incidence of respiratory ailments, enhanced cognitive function, and more livable spaces for people to thrive.

Understanding the Need for Decarbonization In The Construction Industry

Until recently, the construction industry’s response to reducing building-related emissions has focused on energy efficiency by reducing operational emissions – the energy used to heat, cool, and light buildings. This approach, however, overlooks embodied carbon emissions found in the material and building processes across a building’s lifecycle. According to, the material product stage forms 62% of the total embodied carbon; the building use stage accounts for 24% of the total, and during the construction, demolition, and end-of-life stages, it accounts for 14% of the total.

Moreover, a recent report by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) revealed that less than 1% of building projects currently assess or measure their lifecycle carbon impacts. Report points way to having emissions from global building construction by 2030, with measurement and clear targets.

Since buildings are a significant contributor to emissions, it is critical that efforts increase to plan, monitor, and evaluate the materials’ entire lifecycle to be used in construction.

The AEC sector can play a key role in combatting climate change. The numbers are staggering: buildings represent 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions, including 27% in operational emissions and 15% in building materials and construction.

Being a sizeable industry with a substantial carbon footprint, construction cannot afford to wait. And there is an urgent need for solutions to help accelerate the decarbonization of the built environment to limit the global temperature rise to below 1.5°C.

Decarbonizing construction is a process that has already commenced and will result in this sector being placed under regulatory control. For instance, Vancouver, Canada, has mandated that embodied carbon be reduced in new buildings by 40% by 2030, as part of its climate emergency response, demonstrating the type of regulatory frameworks that can drive market change.

How Can Construction Decarbonization Be Accelerated?

To accelerate decarbonization in the building sector, a multipronged decarbonization strategy integrating cutting-edge equipment, environmentally friendly procedures, and policy incentives is needed. A low-carbon built environment can be achieved more quickly by using the following strategies, some of which are based on existing technology and practices.

To lessen the impact on the environment, it is essential to use building materials that have a smaller carbon footprint, such as substituting engineered wood products and using concrete with less carbon intensity.

When buildings are designed with energy efficiency in mind, they can reduce their operational carbon emissions to a minimum. Important approaches consist of reducing the need for mechanical heating, cooling, and lighting systems, which incorporate principles including orientation, insulation, natural ventilation, and daylighting.

We can achieve reduced heating and cooling costs by implementing a high-performance building envelope, which includes energy-efficient windows, insulation, and air-sealing techniques.

We can lessen our dependency on fossil fuels and mitigate operational carbon emissions by harnessing renewable energy sources to power buildings. Methods and technologies include renewable energy generation through the installation of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, such as panels on rooftops or solar facades.

To augment renewable energy production, small-scale wind turbines can be integrated into both urban and rural areas.

Decarbonization technology for “smart” buildings involves automating and digitally improving a structure’s functionality and energy efficiency. An example is building energy management systems, systems that track and adjust various building systems, including HVAC, lighting, and occupancy, to reduce energy use.

Recycling and reusing materials as much as possible and reducing waste at every stage of a building’s lifespan are two goals of the circular economy. Among these are salvaging and reusing construction debris from demolition sites and establishing recycling programs to reduce trash sent to landfills.

By using off-site manufacturing techniques to create building components in controlled environments, prefabrication and modular construction can significantly reduce material waste and building time.

Measuring Embodied Carbon in the Construction Industry

An effective way to reduce the impact of embodied carbon in new construction is to measure it. Only then can we compare, verify, track, and declare it with any degree of accuracy or governance.

In a recent report released by RIB Software, respondents were asked whether they have estimated the embodied carbon emissions related to their projects in order to quantify the percentage of respondents who have already begun the tracking process.

The survey unveiled a stark reality, with 74% of respondents not tracking embodied carbon in their projects. Among those who do, only 58% track it on a limited number of projects. This indicates a critical gap in addressing one of construction’s most pervasive environmental concerns.

Percentage Of Companies Tracking Carbon Emissions
Percentage Of Companies Tracking Carbon Emissions

The full sustainable construction report from RIB can be accessed here.

For reasons like this, key players in the industry, including RIB Software, have partnered to sponsor Building Transparency’s Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3), a revolutionary tool that is turning what has up until recently been an inexact science into an increasingly precise calculation method that helps to quantify and measure embodied carbon and its impact on building projects

Best Practices to Embed Sustainability Into Your Construction Projects

86% of investors dissatisfied with the environmental risk information received said it is critical for disclosures in this area to improve. With the increasing importance of sustainability in business, companies are under pressure, besides generating profits, to incorporate sustainability into their long-term decarbonization strategies.

Here are some first steps to consider:

  • Create a long-term strategy that considers sustainability in every process from start to finish.
  • Source materials ethically and ensure labor standards and fair humanitarian practices are considered in contractor and subcontractor management strategies.
  • Implement sustainable design, engineering, and construction practices powered by relevant data to track, measure, and reduce emissions and waste throughout the project lifecycle.
  • Use logistics processes that optimize deliveries to reduce mileage, emissions, and carbon footprint.
  • Operate assets and equipment in an energy-efficient manner that is safe for the environment and for the workforce.
  • Introduce technology in the pockets that are the root cause of emission blowouts, for example, carbon estimation and analyzing embodied carbon. Connect the teams via common tools and a Connected Data Environment to allow for elimination instead of distribution, making emissions real rather than avoid them.

What Can Companies Do to Decarbonize Construction?

Processing raw materials and the building phase of a structure are the industry’s largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. If we are serious about meeting the climate change targets of 2025, some serious change needs to be done and it all starts with adopting decarbonization and more sustainable practices.

RIB MEA vice president, Peter Damhuis, identifies three important aspects that construction firms need to consider in pursuit of a greener construction process and industry.

It All Starts with the Design Phase

RIB’s vice president says the decisions made during the design phase of a project will affect the greenhouse gas emissions of its entire lifetime: “The design of a project affects the materials used, as each material has a different carbon footprint which will affect the initial carbon calculations.

“In addition, the design can affect the lifecycle costing of development, for example, what glass is used and how does it affect the heat absorption or retention of the building; should the structure be based on concrete or steel; and how would this impact heating in winter and cooling in summer?”

Damhuis continues, “The efficiency of the design can materially impact the energy consumption during the lifetime of the project. So, does the ratio of glass to concrete affect the heating and cooling requirements; does the design include natural ventilation or evaporative cooling systems, which could result in lower energy requirements in the cooling system; does the glass or the roof design include solar generating capabilities; or does the water system allow for grey water consumption for toilets?”

Thoughtful Supply Chain Management

Next to the design phase, Damhuis positions the supply chain as the second largest contributor to the carbon calculation.

“Let’s consider concrete as an example: If the design calls for a concrete structure, then the project team needs to establish where it is sourcing its aggregates, what the haulage distance is, and determine how these two factors contribute to the carbon calculation.”

“More importantly, project teams need to establish how to maximize efficiency in the mix design. Many young technologists are designing ‘cement-free’ concrete, which is set to make a vast difference to the carbon footprint of buildings and other infrastructure.”

He continues his point by saying that carbon analysis applies to almost all kinds of materials, such as recycled wood or glass. “Using recycled aggregates as part of your concrete or scraping roads to remove and recycle top layers for inclusion into a new asphalt layer are important supply chain considerations.”

But it is not just about the materials. Employees also account for a huge portion of the environmental impact of the supply chain. For example, how companies source their labor, from how far workers are traveling and in which types of vehicles (buses, trains, or individual cars) all affect the project’s carbon footprint.

Decarbonization In the Construction Process

RIB’s MEA vice president thinks three main areas should be the focus to improve decarbonization: wastage, plant utilization, and planning.

“Once the supply chain has been maximized, wastage can be reduced by ensuring that no materials are procured beyond what is required. Where waste is generated, it should be split and recycled.”

Plant utilization considerations include factors such as using electricity versus fuels. “Notably, the efficiency of the activity must be suited to the plant, and plant management must also be as efficient as possible.”

Underpinning this is good planning and a testament to how a well-planned project is more likely to be completed on time and within budget. Any mistakes in planning can lead to additional resources and time and a direct impact on carbon usage during the construction phase.

Damhuis says adopting technologies specific to the AEC industry can empower companies to quantify, measure, and track embodied carbon throughout the life of a project. “At the end of the day, if you can’t measure something, how can you reduce it? Technology is key to being able to do so.”

He says pursuing a greener future cannot be an academic exercise or rely on a few platitudes being bandied around a boardroom table. “As the call for more sustainable players grows louder, the sustainability of construction companies could be seriously impacted if they don’t pursue a decarbonization agenda.”

As more decision-makers realize that environmentally friendly choices benefit businesses in a lot of ways, more AEC companies will set sustainability commitments and adopt greener practices into more aspects of their business.

Specialized construction management software is only half of the equation, the second part is the human aspect, where executives need to make sustainability a choice and empower people to fulfill commitments.

Final Thoughts

Here at RIB Software, we’re driven by disruptive digital technologies, best-practice and trends, and have made it our purpose to propel the industry forward and make engineering and construction more efficient and sustainable. That includes supporting the development and availability of world-leading decarbonization software that empowers professionals to quantify, measure, report on, and compare embodied carbon across the project lifecycle. One such example is 6D BIM: This is a huge step forward in BIM technology, as it expands the scope of modeling beyond the conventional 3D model. Stakeholders may better understand the project’s financial status and track its progress over time with 6D BIM, which includes spatial representation in addition to time and cost dimensions.

By offering a holistic view of the project lifecycle from start to finish, 6D BIM is valuable for its improved project planning, scheduling, and cost management. Project teams may maximize productivity and minimize risk by incorporating time and cost data into the BIM model, which allows them to spot possible problems, optimize construction sequences, and make educated decisions. Construction projects are more likely to be completed on time and within budget when project managers use a comprehensive approach to managing their work.

And we’re not stopping there; in-progress development sees our solutions ultimately enabling better design and procurement decisions, factoring in cost, time, and carbon to mitigate and eliminate embodied carbon used across the life cycle of a building.

Our integrated project and enterprise platform, RIB 4.0, offers 6D BIM functionalities to make your projects more efficient, transparent, and collaborative. Get a demo today and experience the power of professional BIM management software!