Sustainable materials the key for embodied emissions reduction in UK construction

If the UK is to achieve its Net Zero Carbon ambitions then the construction industry will have to lead the way. The United Nations Environment Programme says that the materials used in the construction of buildings account for 9% of all global CO2 emissions, making the industry one of the top contributors to the climate emergency.

With this in mind, the UK Green Building Council released its Whole Life Carbon Roadmap for the Built Environment in 2021 to lay out how the UK construction industry can cut its emissions quickly enough to make a difference.

The Roadmap took 2018 emissions as the baseline and targeted an 85% reduction to meet the sector’s climate obligations. Overall, while progress has been made it is clear that it is not fast enough and there is much work to do.

To meet the target, emissions in the construction industry needed to fall 19% in the last four years. In reality, they fell by just 13%, made up of an 18% fall in operational emissions but only a 4% fall in embodied emissions.

Smith Mordak, Chief Executive of the UK Green Building Council, said: “Unprecedented global events have shaped the story of the built environment over the last 4 years, but despite forced emissions reductions during the pandemic, this progress report makes one thing clear: our industry is not moving fast enough.

“We must now reduce emissions nearly twice as fast as we have been to get back on track. The later we leave it, the harder it will be and the greater the missed opportunities for tackling interconnected nature and social crises.”

The relatively tiny fall in embodied emissions is arguably the most concerning part of the Progress Report. While we know sustainability is more important to specifiers and designers than ever before, that is not yet being reflected strongly enough in the day-to-day reality to make the difference we need.

This is reflected by political delays. Richard Dowdall, Regional Director for Civic Engineers, said in The Developer: “Astonishing given the severity of the climate emergency we face, there is no legislation for embodied carbon in the built environment. Part Z, a proposed amendment to building regulations that would cap embodied carbon emissions during building work, is pending review and has made little political progress.”

The need to cut embodied carbon in construction must be met by developers, architects, designers and specifiers at all stages of a project. Most importantly, it needs to start with a look at every single material used on site, and to swap them out for products that can be reclaimed, reused and recycled wherever possible.

For example, we know that up to a quarter of all plasterboard ordered on site ends up being discarded to landfill without ever being installed. It is a material that is susceptible to many kinds of damage and one which can’t be reused on site if it is cut wrong. However, it is a material everyone is used to so it is often designed in and then specified automatically.

This is one example of large-scale material waste which also increases the amount of embodied carbon emissions in each project – and is part of the reason why we have not been able to reduce these emissions fast enough to stay on track with the UK Green Building Council Roadmap.

Alternatives like Specwall offer a different approach that is altogether more sustainable. Our A2 panel achieved its EPD certification in 2023 and can help you embed sustainability at all stages of development.

As well as sending less than 2% of the product to landfill, Specwall panels are designed to be reusable at the end of the building’s lifetime through a simple recutting process. They are also highly resistant to damage and all off-cuts can be re-used on site, minimising the need to over order and cutting waste even further.

Most importantly, Specwall panels have a much lower carbon emissions over their lifecycle – exactly the sort of attribute that the construction sector needs to prioritise. From this OneClick comparison, we can see the following carbon emissions over the lifetime of Specwall compared to other commonly used wall materials:

  • 75mm Specwall A2 panel – 15.74 kgCO2e
  • 100mm Specwall A2 panel – 20.77 kgCO2e
  • Blockwork – 27.87 kgCO2e
  • BG Gyproc Fireline – 59.14 kgCO2e

The construction sector needs to up the pace of emissions reduction, particularly when it comes to embodied emissions. The latest report from the UKGBC emphasises this and makes it clear that sustainable materials are the way forward for buildings of all shapes and sizes.

Want to cut the environmental impact of your development? Get in touch with the team today to find out more.

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