Pressure is building to rapidly decarbonize the United Kingdom’s construction sector, with 450,000 of the country’s engineers urging higher priority for low-carbon procurement and retrofits.
“Making bricks and steel creates vast amounts of CO2, with cement alone causing 8% of global emissions,” writes BBC, reporting on a new paper just published by the National Engineering Policy Centre, a partnership of 43 of the country’s professional engineering organizations.
The report’s key finding is that avoiding embodied emissions—the “CO2 emitted when building materials are made,” explains BBC—should be of paramount concern to all involved in the construction industry. Only by avoiding such emissions will the U.K. construction sector be able to “decarbonize more urgently in line with the national emission reduction targets of 68% by 2030 and 78% by 2035,” notes the study, titled “Decarbonizing Construction: Building a New Net Zero Industry.”
Currently, buildings and infrastructure contribute about 40% of the U.K.’s carbon footprint, “and it is estimated that the construction sector contributes up to 11% of global carbon emissions,” writes the Royal Academy of Engineering, which leads the policy centre. “More holistic and efficient building designs, combined with measures such as reusing building materials wherever possible and using non-fossil fuel-powered machinery, could help to eliminate carbon emissions from building sites.”
BBC stresses climate-saving benefit of retrofits over new construction: “The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors estimates that 35% of the life cycle carbon from a typical office development is emitted before the building is even opened. The figure for residential premises is 51%.”
The Royal Academy adds that, “as a major client of infrastructure and building projects,” the government could help drive the switch to retrofits over demolition “by changing its approach to procurement to reflect whole-life carbon performance.”
Report co-author Mike Cook “challenged the government’s £27-billion roadbuilding program because of the embodied emissions created to obtain the concrete and tarmac, as well as the use of very polluting machines to construct the highways,” BBC writes.
“We have to radically revise the way we look at things,” he said, adding that the planned third runway at Heathrow Airport, with its “massive” amounts of embodied carbon, needs a very hard second look.
The U.K.’s architects have been “heartened” by the report from their engineering peers, notes BBC. In 2019, The Architects’ Journal (AJ), the country’s leading professional architecture magazine, launched “Retrofit First”, a campaign designed to mitigate the harms from what managing editor Will Hurst called “a problematic sector of our economy.”
“Worldwide, the construction industry consumes almost all the planet’s cement, 26% of aluminium output, 50% of steel production, and 25% of all plastics,” said Hurst. His campaign urged the U.K. government to make climate-friendly changes to how building projects are taxed and regulated to ensure the reuse of materials. That would correct “a distorted system of VAT [value-added tax] which props up the industry status quo” of demolition over retrofitting, he explained.
“We pay 20% VAT on most forms of refurbishment and renovation and typically between 0 and 5% on embodied carbon-guzzling new build,” he wrote. “It doesn’t have to be this way. And, in light of the climate emergency and the U.K.’s legal commitment to a net-zero economy by 2050, it cannot remain this way.”
In August 2020, BBC said AJ had “given evidence to the Commons Environmental Audit Committee on the difference between operational emissions from heating and cooling a building and embodied emissions from creating construction materials.” The magazine petitioned the government to eliminate the 20% VAT on refurbishment, repair, and maintenance, to bring it in line with the rates for new builds.
“It’s crazy that the government actually incentivizes practices that create more carbon emissions,” Hurst told BBC. He added that, with the U.K. out of the European Union and no longer subject to its regulations, “they can’t use that excuse now.”
But the despite its high-flying rhetoric on climate solutions, the Boris Johnson government does not look ready to budge. In an exchange with MPs, then-financial secretary to the treasury Jesse Norman said “reducing VAT on all property renovation, repairs, and improvements” would cost the federal government approximately £6 billion per year, and “the government has no plans to review the VAT treatment of construction”.
But “ministers recently said they would ease planning rules for owners wanting to demolish offices and replace them with new-build homes,” BBC says.