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The public sector needs to up its game on embodied carbon

27 July 2023, 13:36 UTC 5 min read

Iva Munro, Senior Manager, Climate Group

"We can be proud of the UK's record as a world leader on net zero," was the first line of the UK government's response to the latest damning report by the Climate Change Committee on UK progress on emission reductions. It's a familiar statement that is at the bottom of almost any media story that criticises UK inaction on climate and nature over the past couple of years.

During the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow, then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson regularly boasted of the country's green leadership credentials. But this summer, the government's independent climate advisers stripped the UK of its status as a global leader on climate action, urging it to once again place climate at the centre of its policy agenda.

The need for leadership from the UK is particularly pressing in the construction sector. Steel and concrete alone account for around 15 per cent of global emissions, and demand for both continues to rise as the global south develops. Unless we begin a full throttle transition to low emission, and eventually near or net zero construction materials, we stand little chance of meeting climate targets.

The good news is that innovation is opening new routes to zero (or near zero) carbon building materials. At Climate Group, our ConcreteZero initiative harnesses the collective purchasing power and influence of our business members to send a strong demand signal to the market. ConcreteZero members, including Lendlease, Skanska, Laing O'Rourke have committed to using 100 per cent net zero concrete by 2050, with ambitious interim targets of using 30 per cent lower emission concrete by 2025 and increasing to 50 per cent by 2030.

While the private sector is starting to show huge ambition, similar goals are needed from the public sector. We need to find a way to get sustainable concrete on the agenda of every decision maker, from parish councillors right up the way to Number 10.

In the UK, around 30 per cent of construction projects are undertaken by or on behalf of the public sector. From school buildings to hospitals, transport infrastructure to flood defences, public bodies can shape the environmental impacts of their spending but too often zero carbon concrete isn't on their radar. This needs to change: if you are a local authority which has declared a climate emergency or a government department seeking to deliver on net zero commitments, and you aren't demanding suppliers use low emission concrete - you're missing a huge trick, and an opportunity to show leadership?

Public sector buyers need to say no to traditional concrete

The UK uses over 90 million tonnes of concrete each year and the production of this hardy material accounts for 1.5 per cent of the UK's carbon emissions. Worldwide the figure is closer to eight per cent - this is an opportunity for the UK to re-establish its leadership credentials. Action now from the UK government would not only enable it to meet its net zero target sooner rather than later, but also show the rest of the world that a decarbonised concrete industry is entirely possible. This is critical to limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees at the very least and averting the worst of the climate crisis.

Knowledge leads to action

We need to change minds - and a big part of that is providing clients and contractors with the tools they need to make changes. The lack of awareness about embodied carbon and the availability of less carbon intensive options is a huge barrier to progress. So is 'business as usual'. That's why we're working with progressive businesses to create a market for net zero concrete and accelerate global change through the creation of standardised methodology to improve accuracy of data and benchmarks, and performance based specifications and standards.

ConcreteZero defines embodied carbon emissions as the CO2 linked to the production of concrete. Most of these emissions are associated with the type of cement used. Traditionally Portland Cement is used as the glue that sticks together the gravel and sands in the concrete mix along with water. While only making up 10 per cent of the concrete mix it contributes to 90 per cent of the embodied carbon emissions of the final concrete product. This is what ConcreteZero members are challenging. They're working together to find alternative binders and concretes that will not only limit the impact on the planet but that also help them meet project requirements and specifications.

Innovation needs to be based on partnerships

Business as usual isn't an option. We need to rethink our approach to regulating, incentivising and working with the construction industry. Policy makers are going to have to become more comfortable with ambiguity. This won't work if we seek to prescribe solutions - a leap of faith is going to be required to enable a focus on outcomes. We're already working with BSI (British Standards Institute) and other industry experts to develop a flex standard for low-emission concrete, which we hope with gather widespread support and adoption.

But we know that good intentions aren't enough at a time when funds are tight and decision making is opaque. Public procurement policies need to change and look at whole life costs - not just in financial terms but in terms of carbon. This is already happening in Denmark with transformative results.

Businesses are already taking charge - Canary Wharf Group works with its supply chain, engaging early and helping its suppliers tackle issues as they arise. They are integrating ConcreteZero principles of low carbon concrete early into their projects, and taking the time to test solutions that deliver the most suitable results. Governments can help by bringing in effective policy through building regulations and planning guidance. Most of all they can ensure that good data is collected to enable industry to compare what is and isn't working and set progressively more challenging standards.

A golden opportunity for UK plc 

The choice is ours. With the political will and right policies, the UK can drive a global transition to sustainable materials, securing jobs and investment in this country and opening markets for our expertise around the world. Or we can wait for other countries to make the first steps in mainstreaming low emission concrete across the public sector. For our environment, economy and aspirations as a climate leader, I hope we choose the former.

*This article was originally published on Business Green. You can find the article here.