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Why all building materials need to deliver on sustainability of supply and climate

Credit: Alamy

Robert Largan MP | Mineral Products Association

3 min read Partner content

From net negative carbon concrete to UK-grown timber and sustainable steel, every material must play their part to deliver a net zero built environment by 2050.

The disruptions caused by Covid-19 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have laid bare the importance of robust supply chains, with imports of many products disrupted. Local businesses in High Peak are working hard under sustained price pressures to supply essential materials for construction and other industries, to get houses built and infrastructure projects supplied all over the country.

In the built environment, there has long been a lively debate on which building material is best from a sustainability perspective, often involving concrete, timber and steel putting forward rival arguments. This is not just about carbon emissions though: biodiversity, water, longevity, fire and flood resilience all feature.

It’s rare that anyone asks whether there is a sustainable supply of the materials, or how best to use the finite supply of sustainably sourced materials. Given the recent shocks to global supply chains, it’s a question we need to ask more frequently.

It was interesting, therefore, to see Confor – the trade body for Forestry – put out a refreshingly direct assessment of the limits of supply of sustainable timber earlier this year. Reflecting the UK’s situation as a large net importer of wood products, their Chief Executive asked whether we risked placing excessive strain on vulnerable forests in other parts of the world:

“We will always be a huge importer of wood products, and we have a strong regulatory system in place to ensure that the timber we import is from legal and sustainable sources, but other countries aren’t so strict – the pressure on fragile forests overseas will almost certainly increase as pressure on supply increases, and with the war in the Ukraine that imbalance will be felt earlier and harder.” – Stuart Goodall, CEO Confor

Concrete and other mineral products come with different challenges. Geologically abundant, well over 95% of the concrete used in the UK is from the UK, whereas around 80% of timber and 60% of steel are imported. 100% of aggregates and 90% of concrete production in the membership of the Mineral Products Association – the trade body for aggregates, cement and concrete – are certified to BES 6001 standard. This ensures that the products are responsibly sourced and can be traced back to the quarry in which they originated.

The main challenge on supply is the existing planning system, which is not delivering new permitted reserves at the pace that materials are being used. The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill will hopefully improve matters.

The key challenge for the sector is climate. The concrete and cement industry accounts for around 1.5% of UK greenhouse gas emissions. It has a roadmap get to net negative by 2050 and is delivering progress on that roadmap already with trials of hydrogen fuel, low carbon concretes and hopefully soon the UK’s first cement plant with carbon capture, before eventually enabling all cement plants, whether in CCUS clusters or not. This will not be cheap or easy, but the industry is making progress right now. 

We need a net zero built environment by 2050 whatever the materials involved – and I hope that net negative carbon concrete will be competing with more UK-grown timber and sustainable steel. We cannot continue to rely on imported wood, exporting our own forest footprint.

We need sustainable materials for the built environment, in terms of climate and sustainable supply – and all materials need to deliver.

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