Insights and Advice for Enabling More Efficient and Sustainable Construction

The RIB Construction Sustainability Survey Report 2023 – A Status Quo Analysis of the AEC Industry

March 13, 2024
19 mins read

The RIB Construction Sustainability Survey Report 2023

Sustainability in the AEC Industry: Insights on Embodied Carbon Emissions

Sustainability, and the urgent need to reduce embodied carbon has become a global concern. As a leading contributor to global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) industry can no longer ignore the alarm bells.

Reducing carbon emissions has moved to the front of our priority queue as the planet scrambles to secure an efficient, sustainable and resilient future. As an important cog in the built wheel, the AEC industry has the power to both mitigate its ecological footprint and develop innovative solutions that can live in harmony alongside nature.

RIB Software vision of ‘making engineering and construction more efficient and sustainable’ hinges on our ability to support and initiative positive change within the industry. That is what prompted us to reach out to our global customer networks, and hear their thoughts, perspectives and experiences dealing with this sensitive, yet incredibly relevant topic.

We compiled these findings into a construction sustainability report that unpacks the worrying issue of embodied carbon emissions in construction – a silent yet significant contributor to our environmental challenges. The insights drawn from our environmental sustainability in construction survey illustrate the industry’s current stance on embodied carbon tracking, construction sustainability plans, and what comes next for the industry.

What is Sustainable Construction?

Sustainable construction minimizes negative environmental impact across the entire construction project lifecycle, from planning and design to construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and the eventual demolition or decommissioning.

Sustainability in construction management covers every aspect of the build: from environmentally friendly materials, to  reducing energy consumption and resources, minimizing waste, to considering the social and economic aspects of construction projects. The ultimate goal of sustainable construction is to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Embodied Carbon Emissions in Construction: A Comprehensive Overview

Simply put, embodied carbon refers to the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions associated with the manufacture and use of a product or service. In the construction arena, this encompasses the carbon emissions released during the lifecycle of building materials, including raw material extraction, manufacturing, transport, construction, and eventual disposal. Examples of materials that contribute to embodied carbon emissions are steel, concrete, and insulation. 

Scope 1 Emissions: Scope 1 emissions are directly caused by a company operating things it controls and/or owns. These emissions result from the direct use of fossil fuels and industrial activity.

Scope 2 Emissions: Scope 2 emissions are caused indirectly through the consumption of purchased electricity, heat or steam. Strategies for reducing this scope may include installing solar panels or sourcing renewable energy.

Scope 3 Emissions: Like scope 2, these are also indirect emissions but relate to all other greenhouse gas emissions that companies have no direct ownership or control over, i.e. occurring throughout their value chain.

The Role of Embodied Carbon for Sustainability in the Construction Industry

Embodied carbon in construction refers specifically to the CO2 emissions associated with the materials and processes used to create and construct a building. This includes the carbon emitted during the extraction, manufacturing, transportation, and installation of building materials like concrete, steel, glass, insulation, and more. Essentially, embodied carbon is a measure of the environmental impact of a building’s materials and construction methods before it even starts operating.

Understanding and reducing embodied carbon is crucial for achieving sustainability goals in the construction industry. As buildings become more energy-efficient during their operational phase (Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions), the proportion of emissions attributed to embodied carbon (Scope 3 emissions) becomes increasingly significant. Thus, focusing solely on operational emissions while neglecting embodied carbon undermines the overall sustainability efforts of the construction sector.

In the journey toward a more sustainable built environment, it’s imperative for the construction industry to address both operational and embodied carbon emissions. By minimizing the embodied carbon associated with construction materials and methods, the industry can substantially contribute to the reduction of its environmental footprint and work towards a net-zero emissions future.

Carbon Reduction Throughout the Construction Project Lifecycle

Carbon reduction in a sustainable construction project is a collaborative effort that involves various stakeholders, each with a unique role to play in minimizing the project’s environmental impact.

1) Architects and Designers

At the start of a construction project, architects and designers can already drive carbon reduction during the design phase with the help of professional construction software for architects:

Material Selection: Choosing low carbon materials, such as those with lower embodied carbon, sustainable certifications, or recycled content, can make a noticeable impact on the overall carbon footprint of a project.

Energy Efficiency: Energy efficient buildings reduce operational carbon emissions. By choosing passive design strategies, or optimizing daylighting, and including renewable energy sources, these professionals can make a marked difference.

2) Engineers

Structural, mechanical, and electrical engineers, also have a part in carbon education:

Structural Efficiency: Reliance on structures that use fewer materials while maintaining structural integrity will reduce embodied carbon emissions.

Systems Design: Efficient HVAC, lighting, and water systems are responsible for lower operational carbon emissions.

Renewable Energy Integration: Engineers can minimize reliance on fossil fuels by designing systems that harness renewable energy sources, such as solar panels and geothermal heating. With the help of innovative construction tools for engineers, renewable energy can be at the core of any modern building.

3) Contractors and Builders

Contractors play a vital role by transforming sustainable designs into reality:

Construction Practices: Adopting efficient construction methods and minimizing waste.

Supply Chain Management: Selecting suppliers that provide low carbon materials and optimized transportation routes.

Efficient Site Operations: Creating energy-efficient construction site facilities and temporary power systems.

4) Suppliers and Manufacturers

Suppliers and manufacturers can contribute by producing and providing low-carbon materials and products:

Sustainable Materials: Developing and supplying reduced embodied carbon materials, such as recycled materials or those produced with lower-energy processes.

Supply Chain Transparency: Access to data on the carbon footprint of products helps inform decision-making during the material selection process.

5) Clients and Developers

Clients and developers drive carbon reduction by setting priorities and expectations:

Setting Sustainability Goals: If clients prioritize carbon reduction in project goals, it will align all participants with the common goal of minimizing environmental impact.

Demanding Transparency: Detailed information on the carbon footprint of materials and construction practices prompts transparency and accountability across the project team.

6) Regulatory Bodies and Government

Regulatory bodies and government agencies establish guidelines and incentives that promote carbon reduction:

Building Codes: Setting stringent building codes that prioritize energy efficiency and low-carbon materials.

Incentives: Offering incentives, such as tax credits or grants for sustainable construction.

Collaboration in construction is essential to achieve meaningful carbon reduction across all projects. Effective communication, shared goals, and a commitment to sustainability at every stage of the project contribute to a more environmentally responsible built environment.

Why is Sustainability in Construction Important?

As the global community becomes more conscious of the environmental impact of various industries, sustainable construction practices have gained significant attention. The building industry in total generates ~40% of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions per year. 11% of this figure is made up of embodied carbon emissions that relate to new construction. In order to achieve net-zero, the industry has to reduce carbon emissions by the same values.

As with any other sector, sustainability in construction is essential for mitigating environmental impacts, conserving resources, reducing costs, enhancing occupant health and well-being, and meeting regulatory requirements and market demand.

Methodology & Sources of the Construction Sustainability Report

RIB recognizes the existing sustainability emergency in buildings and the vital role that construction plays in shaping a greener future. We are committed to driving positive change within our industry, delivering on our purpose of making engineering and construction more efficient and sustainable. This was the impetuses for us to reach out to our global customer networks, to hear their thoughts and perspectives on this crucial topic, with a special focus on embodied carbon emissions in construction.

The RIB Sustainable Construction Report was split into two sections. The first section included a set of mandatory questions that we most wanted our customer’s feedback and insights on. The second section was optional to complete.

The survey captured 253 unique responses from respondents working in the architecture, engineering and construction industry, specifically in contractors and owners across Asia Pacific, Europe, the Americas and the Middle & East & Africa from 1 May – 14 July 2023. The responses were then anonymized and aggregated to ensure privacy and data security.

Key Results & Findings of the RIB Sustainable Construction Report

1) Tracking of Embodied Carbon Emissions: ‘Have you estimated the embodied carbon emissions related to your projects?’

Our first question to respondents aimed at quantifying the percentage of respondents who have already begun the tracking process. As anticipated, we discovered that the majority of the regions surveyed are not tracking embodied carbon, with the ones that are, only tracking it on a small majority of their projects.

Bar chart showing 74% of the respondents in the sustainable construction report are not tracking embodied carbon emissions on their projects.

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

2) Reasons for not Tracking Embodied Carbon Emissions: ‘Why are you not measuring and/or tracking embodied carbon on your projects?’

The second question from our sustainable construction report delved deeper into the reasons why embodied carbon tracking is not taking place.

The survey identified two primary reasons for not tracking it:

  • ▷ 45% of respondents noted that it’s not a priority for their clients
  • ▷ 26% cited a lack of knowledge around measurement techniques.

Less prevalent responses included cost concerns, fears about the impact it would have on schedules, and apathy about the degree of meaningful change individuals can bring about. 

Addressing these concerns is pivotal to creating a paradigm shift in industry practices.

Column chart showing the majority of companies that don’t track their carbon emissions do so because construction practices in sustainability are not a priority for their clients.

3) Motivations for Tracking Embodied Carbon: ‘Why are you measuring and/or tracking the embodied carbon related to your projects?’

The responses to the third question in our survey revealed that a consistent key reason across all major regions to measuring and/or tracking the embodied carbon related to projects is meeting one’s own company’s sustainability needs and goals. While a close second is meeting client’s sustainability needs and goals and, notably, the third biggest reason spanning the globe is because it’s the right thing to do.

Column chart showing why companies track the embodied carbon emissions of their projects, with 27% of respondents stating it is due to sustainable construction goals.

Statistically, for those tracking embodied carbon emissions, motivations were split as follows: 27% are driven by their company’s sustainability goals, 25% by meeting clients’ sustainability objectives, and 25% by the overarching ethical responsibility.

These motives paint a comprehensive picture of the multifaceted drivers behind this critical initiative.

4) Tracking Methods & Tracking Duration: ‘How and for how long have you been measuring and/or tracking embodied carbon on your projects?’

For those respondents who have been tracking their emissions, the large majority have only been doing it for a very short period of time. The survey revealed that 80% of those tracking embodied carbon emissions have been doing so for less than five years.

Respondents also provided some detail around the type of tools they preferred to carry out tracking. The tools at their disposal include EPD databases and digital tools:

  • ▷ 77% are using Environmental Product Declaration database resources to track embodied carbon.
  • ▷ 68% are using digital tools to track embodied carbon.

Construction sustainability report chart showing the number of years companies have been tracking embodied carbon emissions.

5) Perceived Impact of Tracking Implementation: ‘On average, what is the estimated percentage of embodied carbon emissions you have managed to reduce on your projects since being able to track and measure it?’

A noteworthy observation provided by the survey is that the perceived impact of the embodied carbon tracking efforts fall short of the industry’s net-zero aspirations.

Column chart showing the percentage of reduced embodied carbon emissions since tracking and implementing a construction sustainability plan.

6) Perception and Responsibility: ‘How much of the globe’s total carbon emissions do you think the AEC industry accounts for?’

A concerning disconnect emerged from the survey – while the majority of respondents believe that the AEC industry is responsible for fewer global carbon emissions than it truly is, only half of them feel responsible for driving change. This perception gap highlights the need for enhanced awareness and accountability.

Though progress is evident, respondents echo a shared sentiment – much more needs to be done. While 65% believe that progress is being made, a mere 48% feel personally responsible. This duality emphasizes the collective challenge faced by the industry.

Bar chart showing the majority of respondents think the AEC industry accounts for 44% of the global embodied carbon emissions.

7) Green Projects and Strategies: ‘What is the share of green projects* in your company?’

*In our survey, we defined a green project as the build of an asset that, because of its construction and features, can maintain or improve the quality of life of the environment in which it is located.

Pie chart showing the share of sustainable construction projects in surveyed companies.

The survey revealed that less than 30% of projects are classified as green for over half of the respondents. Only half of the surveyed companies have carbon reduction strategies in place, while 45% have dedicated staff for sustainable initiatives. These figures signify an uneven distribution of commitment across the industry.

Visual showing the percentage of companies that have implemented sustainable practices in construction.

8) Formal Commitments and Drivers for Change: “What do you think the drivers for change are?”

Although the survey results indicate a gloomy picture at present, a promising insight emerged – a third of respondents have formally committed to reducing embodied carbon emissions.

Column chart showing the main drivers for change for tracking construction sustainability.

This commitment is driven by a variety of factors, with legislation (33%), client expectations (28%), and cost/efficiency savings (18%) emerging as the primary catalysts for change.

9) Construction Industry Carbon Reduction 5 Year Trend: ‘How important do you think the reduction of embodied carbon in building projects will be in the next five years?’

Despite the low uptake of tangible sustainability actions at present, the large majority of survey respondents acknowledged that the construction industry is gearing up for change. 69% agreed that reduction in embodied carbon is a crucial aspect of future projects. Hopefully, this means that we can look forward to an increased focus on sustainability in construction projects.

Pie chart showing answers about the importance of reducing embodied carbon emissions in the next five years.

Summary, Main Insights & Outlook

The alarming statistic that attributes more than 40% of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions per year to the building industry is a loud wake-up call. Achieving net-zero will require enormous change and Herculean effort by all participants to implement effective sustainability practices in construction.

Now, that you know what is sustainable construction and what the status of the industry is, there has never been a better time for less talk and more action and implement a sustainable construction software.

Here are the main insights uncovered by the RIB Sustainability Survey:

  • 1) Majority of the regions surveyed are not tracking embodied carbon, with the ones that are, only tracking it on a small majority of their projects.
  • 2) Of the respondents that are tracking embodied carbon, the industry segment where there’s a focus on both buildings and infrastructure seems to be further along in their efforts. Also, it would appear that the effort put into tracking embodied carbon increases as the average project size as well as average number of projects increases.
  • 3) The biggest reason for not tracking carbon emissions is because respondents don’t feel like it’s a priority for their clients. For those that are, it’s about meeting their company’s sustainability needs and goals.
  • 4) For those that have been tracking it:

    • – The large majority have only been doing it for a short period of less than 5 years.
    • – The most widely used methods of tracking and measuring it are the use of EPD database resources as well as digital tools.
  • 5) Of those tracking embodied carbon, the impact they estimate to be making in reducing embodied carbon emissions is below the required percentage to help our industry reach net-zero.
  • 6) Majority of our respondents think the AEC industry is responsible for less total global carbon emissions than what it is.
  • 7) Majority of our respondents believe that progress is being made in carbon reduction but also believe that far more needs to be done. Though only half believe that they are responsible!
  • 8) Only a small majority of companies have a share in green projects.
  • 9) Only half of our respondents having carbon reduction strategies in place with more having dedicated staff for sustainable activities in their company.
  • 10) A third of respondents have made a formal commitment to reduce embodied carbon.
  • 11) A large majority do however believe that carbon reduction is a crucial and vital aspect of future projects with the top drivers for change being:

    • – Legislation
    • – Client/customer expectations
    • – Cost/efficiency savings

The construction industry has a huge role to play, tasked with not just erecting structures but also building a sustainable legacy. The insights unveiled in this survey underscore the need for innovative construction software solutions to the gap between intentions and impact and support sustainability throughout the project lifecycle.

As participants of this dynamic landscape, the onus is on us to drive transformation, advocate for informed decisions, and pioneer innovative strategies that lead to a future where efficiency and sustainability is not just a goal but a way of life.