Chapter 1

The drive for carbon neutral in the construction sector

Global warming and the climate emergency have never been more high profile and the ‘net zero carbon’ agenda is becoming increasingly mainstream. Architects and designers are faced with significant decisions about their contribution to reducing the impact their projects have on the environment.

The industry is starting to make significant commitments to a considered approach to design and construction that takes better account of its environmental impact. As the debate becomes heightened, the sector is working to create demand for new ways to address the climate change agenda and taking steps to making a more positive contribution. The UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) has fully embraced an ambition to work towards a net zero carbon built environment by lending its support to the goals of the World Green Building Council Advancing Net Zero campaign.

In 2019, the UK Government was the first in the world to set a target to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Shortly afterwards, RIBA made its commitment to tackling the environmental crisis by launching the 2030 Climate Challenge providing a range of advice and support for the architectural and design community on how they can adapt their projects and work towards a series of stretching outcomes. The challenge includes goals that apply to both new and retrofitted buildings and encompass connectivity and transport, the water cycle, land use and the promotion of biodiversity. The principles of the challenge encourage a positive contribution to sustainable communities and strives to improve social value, health and wellbeing. Critically, the plan also focuses on net zero operational and embodied carbon which we will explore in more detail below.

The risks from the rise in greenhouse gas emissions are far from new and the debate on how to combat them has been raging ever since the term ‘greenhouse effect’ was coined by US scientist and climate change activist James Hansen more than 30 years ago. However, 2019 seems to have marked a tipping point in the focus of attention on global warming and as a result, organisations are putting their weight behind multiple campaigns and more robustly restating their commitment to tackling climate change goals.

Iconic architecture practice Foster + Partners was the first to put its name to the World Green Building Council’s Net Zero Carbon Buildings commitment, joining 45 businesses and organisations across 38 cities across the world. With hundreds more set to follow, this trend is becoming hard to resist.

Notwithstanding the obvious ethics behind these goals, it is worth reflecting on the wider benefits of making a commitment to net zero which extend to improving brand reputation and boosting corporate social responsibility. Ethical businesses are keen to demonstrate that they have taken account of climate change issues in particular because it helps to reassure shareholders and also because it improves their appeal to employees who increasingly choose to work for responsible companies. Embedding carbon neutral credentials within building design can help to secure contracts and contribute to the overall long-term success of a business. Of course, It also creates spaces where people can enjoy the benefits of better health and wellbeing.

There is plenty of help and support available for the sector. The Carbon Trust has designed its PAS 2080 standard around the entire value chain for infrastructure carbon and helps organisations within the construction sector to reduce the impact of their projects on the environment through sustainable design, construction and use.

The call for change is gathering pace with industry leaders increasingly seeking to establish a greater focus on the climate challenge. At the Futurebuild 2020 exhibition in London in March, industry spokespeople urged the sector to put sustainable design at the heart of their future projects.

Eddie Weir from the Chartered Institute of Architectural Technologists (CIAT) said that he supported the delivery of eco efficient credentials through a holistic approach to sustainable design. Alistair Mant, Head of Business Transformation at the UKGBC said that corporate organisations should adjust their processes to enable them to harness the benefits created by innovative start-ups. And Sue Riddlestone OBE, Chief Executive of Bioregional highlighted the importance of choosing the right materials in construction projects to enable people to achieve a sustainable lifestyle.  

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