Insights and Advice for Enabling More Efficient and Sustainable Construction

Decarbonizing Construction: The What, Why, And How

22 August, 2022
9 mins read

We are facing big challenges. This year, the Earth Overshoot Day landed on July 28, marking the date when humanity has used all the biological resources that Earth regenerates during the entire year.

The recent heatwave in Europe and Asia is a shocking reminder of how urgent the climate crisis is. Now it’s really the time to act to #MoveTheDate of Earth Overshoot Day back as far as we can and reduce our demands on our planet.

Our annual demand is now 70% higher than what the Earth’s ecosystems can replenish. This means we would need 1.7 Earths to provide humanity’s needs in 2022. Yet, we only have 1 finite Earth.

We know by now that decarbonization is essential in slowing down climate change, but first things first, what exactly is ‘decarbonization’?

Decarbonization 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.

Why does decarbonization matter in construction?

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 construction processes across a building’s lifecycle, which represents a quarter of the CO2 emitted during the life of a building and 11% of all global CO2 emissions.

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.

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 engineering and construction sector can play a key role in combatting climate change. The numbers are staggering: buildings represent 39% of global greenhouse gas emissions, including 28% in operational emissions and 11% 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.

The decarbonization of construction is a process which 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 decarbonization be accelerated in construction?

When it comes to decarbonization in construction, we can tackle the challenge in two major domains:

  • Existing buildings
  • New construction

Existing buildings

The hard truth is that all buildings have a carbon footprint, which is defined as the amount of CO2 the building produces during its operations and activities.

The average lifetime of a building varies from 30-50 years for commercial buildings to 70-100 years for modern residential construction and 150 years or more for historic buildings. About half of today’s building stock is likely to still be in use in 2050.

Without widespread existing building decarbonization across the globe, these buildings will still be emitting CO2 emissions in 2040 and we will not achieve the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C target.

Buildings are underutilized and often discarded before they have reached the end of their useful life, which can result in an avoidable level of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Thus, one strategy could be to enhance the utilization of existing buildings, for instance, transforming old warehouses or plants into creative workspaces. Implementing strategic use of existing spaces and infrastructure can lead to an 11% GHG emission reduction by 2050, and a 10%-20% reduction in demand for new buildings.

New construction

Global building floor area is expected to double by 2060 to accommodate urban growth. And 2.4 trillion ft2 (230 million m2) of new floor area to the global building stock is expected to be added, the equivalent of adding an entire New York city to the world, every month, for four decades.

Achieving zero emissions from new construction, therefore, will demand that we plan, design, procure, construct, and operate energy-efficient buildings in an energy-efficient manner.

Technologies to drastically reduce energy consumption in buildings already exist, though many building owners, operators, developers, and contractors are still not fully aware of them, or the value created by embedding them.

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. That’s exactly why 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.

First steps to consider when embedding sustainability into your company’s strategy

86% of investors dissatisfied with 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 strategy.

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 in place with all subcontractors and suppliers.
  • 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 e.g. 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.

As more leaders realize that sustainable choices are beneficial for business, more engineering and construction companies will set sustainability commitments and adopt sustainable practices into more aspects of their business.

Now is the time to take action to balance the bottom line with the green line in the engineering and construction industry. Construction tech solutions is only half of the equation, the second part is the human aspect, where executives need to make sustainability a choice and empower people fulfil commitments.

Here at RIB Software, we’re driven by disruptive digital technologies, industry 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 solutions that empower industry professionals to quantify, measure, report on and compare embodied carbon across the project lifecycle. 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 in order to mitigate and eliminate embodied carbon used across the life of a building.