The race against climate change: does net zero mark the finish line?
29 October 2021
An opinion piece by Stephen Good, CEO, Construction Scotland Innovation Centre
The UK is gearing up for net zero, with the Government having published a landmark strategy last week to outline the actions needed to decarbonise the economy over the next 30 years. It focused on electric vehicles, a commitment to carbon capture and storage, and funding for additional tree planting among other measures, as well as promising to support up to 440,000 jobs.
It also comes just after the launch of the £3.9 billion heat and buildings strategy that sets out a plan to eliminate fossil fuels and cut emissions from the built environment, largely through a focus on low-carbon heating systems. Decarbonising the built environment is – rightly so – becoming a top priority.
COP26 in Glasgow represents an important opportunity for the sector, and the event could act as an important launchpad for action and change. Scotland – and the rest of the UK – has a deep pool of world-class academic talent, an excellent skills ecosystem, opportunity focused industry expertise, and cutting-edge innovation already delivering impact across the built environment, but the challenge lies in scaling this up, and fast.
To truly tackle the global climate emergency, we need a complete paradigm shift, from making small incremental changes to embedding sustainability within the key sectors that can deliver change – such as property and construction. It can’t be an after-thought or implemented in half-measures.
The harsh truth is that our sector is one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, and that can’t be ignored. We, therefore, have a responsibility to lead change. Buildings and infrastructure underpin all aspects of our societies and communities serving us for work, rest, and play, and many of the solutions to climate change will sit within the construction sphere. If we can get that right, new practices and approaches to sustainability will likely cross over into other areas too.
How clients procure new and refurbished buildings and infrastructure will also play a large part in the process. Delivering zero carbon will require a change in mindset from decision-makers, and in procurement terms, it’s about how we re-define and measure value. By rewiring the model to incentivise innovative, rather than stifle it, clients can achieve outcomes and work with forward thinking contractors and supply chain partners that challenge the norm.
Decarbonisation is one of the biggest challenges the construction sector has ever faced, and it will undoubtedly be a long road ahead. However – to use construction parlance – we already have many of the building blocks in place. From a technical perspective, we know it can be done, but we need to supercharge the skills and capabilities to achieve the best possible results – and to do that at pace.
Supporting that transition and platforming our capability is the core objective of CSIC’s BE@COP26 showcase beginning next week, alongside COP26, at our Innovation Factory just outside of Glasgow. From 1-12 November we are hosting an international exhibition of low and zero-carbon solutions, prototypes and circular materials and we’re opening our doors to everyone with an interest in the future of the built environment to come along, learn more and be inspired in a Covid safe environment.
Among the range of exhibits are the UK’s first modular home manufactured from homegrown cross laminated timber – part of the wider Innovate-UK funded Transforming Timber initiative; and a NearHome prototype, a component of the Scottish Government’s 20-minute neighbourhoods initiative, which shows how disused spaces can be transformed into sustainable, local work hubs.
MultiPly, a carbon-neutral, modular wooden pavilion designed by Waugh Thistleton Architects and made entirely of American tulipwood and the star of the London Design Festival a few years ago, will also be on display, along with sustainable building materials such as Kenoteq’s K-Briq made from 90% recycled construction waste.
Meanwhile, Balfour Beatty is bringing its Innovation Pod to the centre, which will highlight the organisation’s leading digital tools and technologies. This includes its Project Arch app that allows teams to capture data remotely, and the JCB Livelink that uses telematics to manage and monitor the use of site machinery. By demonstrating the technology already in use by Balfour Beatty globally, the organisation is aiming to show how big data can be used to enhance construction activities for the benefit of the environment.
At the heart of any transformation project lies innovation, collaboration and strong leadership, and in the case of the climate emergency, no single organisation, concept or research team will solve the problem alone. The sector needs to work together and start looking at the circular and sustainable alternatives to today’s high embodied energy solutions, with a better understanding of how innovation can be adopted at scale.
There is no question that reaching net zero will be a significant achievement for the UK, and indeed the construction sector. I hope as a sector though, we focus on the ‘zero’ bit, rather than the ‘net’ bit. Offsetting before we really need to would be doing our amazing, talented, innovative industry a huge disservice. When it comes to climate change, we’ll perhaps never be ‘done’. But, by taking a whole-life approach to carbon and developing innovative circular solutions – rather than paying someone to plant trees elsewhere – we can create the most sustainable built environment possible, fit for generations to come.
To find out more about BE@COP26 and to register for free tours and events, visit: be-at-cop26.org