Delivering the benefits of a low-carbon built environment
With a low-carbon approach to construction, we can build the housing this country needs and accelerate decarbonisation in the process.
Britain needs more houses. Britain needs to decarbonise. Both the Government and the Opposition would agree with both of those statements, but there’s a catch: the built environment is a major contributor to the UK’s carbon emissions, from the operation of buildings – heating, lighting and increasingly cooling and air conditioning – and from their construction, demolition and maintenance.
To square this circle so that more buildings no longer mean more emissions, it is vital to decarbonise building materials. Take the UK cement and concrete industry, which has already cut its absolute CO2 emissions by 53% since 1990 – a faster rate than the wider economy.
Concrete also already has sustainability benefits in terms of transport emissions. Unlike timber and steel – a large majority of which has to be imported – over 95% of concrete used in the UK is produced here. In fact, the average road haulage distance for aggregates is 28 miles, and for ready mixed concrete just 10 miles. Moreover, due to the industry’s commitment to responsible sourcing standards, you can trace a bag of UK-produced cement back to the quarry the raw materials were sourced from. 100% of aggregates and 90% of concrete production reported to MPA certified as “very good” or “excellent” under BES6001, Responsible Sourcing.
There’s a lot of work over the coming years to deliver the industry’s roadmap to beyond net zero by 2050, but progress is already being made. Today, cement and concrete combined contribute around 1.5% of UK territorial CO2 emissions, and while long-term projects like CCUS deployment, decarbonising the electricity grid, and switching to low-carbon transport fuels will eventually help eliminate emissions across the board, ministers can pull a number of levers to help the UK cement and concrete industry and the whole built environment cut emissions now. This includes supporting more efficient uses of alternatives to fossil fuels, and using public procurement to grow the market for low carbon concretes.
Fuel switching is a key lever, and has been a big part of the decarbonisation of the industry so far. The industry is keen to eradicate the use of coal, replacing it with fuels such as waste biomass, including processed sewage pellets and meat and bone meal, as well as Recovered Solid Fuels, shredded car tyres and potentially also hydrogen. While hydrogen is a longer term prospect, some of these alternative fuels could be used more today if the Government were to stop encouraging the use of waste biomass in electricity production or domestic heat, both of which have other viable alternatives, rather than industrial use. Reforming the Green Gas Support Scheme would help save taxpayer money and support industrial decarbonisation.
Procurement is a major tool at the Government’s disposal, because the public sector is a major client with considerable buying power. Parts of the public sector are already doing this. For example, the Environment Agency announced earlier this year that they would be using low carbon concrete as standard in their flood defence work, while National Highways has committed to using warm mix asphalt, which delivers lower carbon emissions than traditional asphalt. This approach encourages more investment in delivering lower carbon options and encourages other customers to follow their lead.
Low-carbon construction is the key to Britain’s climate, housing, and infrastructure challenges, and while there is a long term plan to fully decarbonise concrete and cement, we don’t have to wait years to make carbon savings now.
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