A dearth of policy designed to tackle the significant emissions generated by the construction and demolition of buildings is damaging the chances of the UK achieving net zero, MPs on Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) have warned today.
A report by the select committee this morning warns that UK building decarbonisation policy has to date focused entirely on operational emissions and how to make buildings more energy efficient, but that “no progress” has been made on reducing the significant emissions generated in the construction of buildings.
Moreover, the government has yet to outline how it intends to put the built environment sector – which is responsible for roughly a quarter of the UK’s emissions – on a credible pathway to net zero emissions, it adds.
Among a raft of recommendations in today’s report, the EAC urges the government to reduce the number of buildings that are demolished, and to make assessments of emissions involved in the construction and maintenance of mandatory buildings.
On the latter point, the MPs have called on the government to follow the lead of some other European countries and make whole-life cycle assessments of buildings a requirement, arguing this rule would provide policymakers and industry with a more impact detailed breakdown of the climate of the UK’s built environment and encourage the use of recycled steel and other ‘green’ building materials.
It has also called for the government to introduce decarbonisation targets for buildings by December 2023 at the latest, that could ratchet up over time.
Conservative MP Phillip Dunne, chair of the EAC, said Ministers needed to address the issues set out in the report “urgently”. “From homes to offices, retail units to hospitality venues, our buildings have a significant amount of locked-in carbon, which is wasted each time they get knocked down to be rebuilt, a process which yet produces more emissions,” he said.
Dunne said the government had taken some “promising steps” in tackling emissions produced by the UK’s built environment, pointing to Housing, Communities and Levelling-Up Secretary Michael Gove’s decision to intervene in the demolition of the Marks and Spencer building on Oxford Street on environmental grounds. But he warned that “much more needs to be done”.
“Baseline standards for action need to be established,” he said. “Mandatory whole-life carbon assessments, and targets to crack down on embodied carbon, provide part of the answer. Constructors and developers can then determine which low-carbon materials, such as timber and recycled steel, they can use.”
The report urges the government to create a policy environment that encourages developers to prioritise retrofit and reuse of buildings over emissions-intensive demolition and new construction, warning that recent reforms to permitted development rights are hurting the drive to reduce emissions because they incentivise new builds.
And not for the first time, the EAC has raised alarm that a “chronic” skills gap in energy efficiency and retrofit is likely to hamper efforts to retrofit existing buildings to make them less carbon intensive.
“As in many other areas in the drive to net zero, the UK must have the green skills to make its low carbon future a reality,” Dunne said. “Before the summer recess in July, I urge the government to publish a retrofit strategy and upskilling program that can ensure the UK economy will have the green jobs necessary to deliver a low-carbon built environment.”
Caterina Brandmayr, head of climate policy at Green Alliance, said that policies that promoted low carbon construction materials could spur the growth of new sectors in the UK.
“Promoting low carbon construction materials and making better use of existing buildings in place of demolishing them is vital to tackle the climate impact of construction. This will help grow new supply chains for timber, but also boost investment in UK low carbon steel and concrete, ensuring those industries are fit for the future.”
Brandmayr said there was broad public support from the public for measures that would tackle the emissions of buildings. “With a push for new housing expected in the coming years, it makes no sense to delay action. London has taken the lead, but there is widespread support for government to do more across the country, through stronger building regulations and requirements within the planning system,” she said.
A spokesperson from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said the government would carefully consider the report’s findings. “We have decarbonised our economy faster than any country in the G20 and remain fully committed to reducing emissions from the construction sector through the Construct Zero program and other initiatives to support the industry achieving its decarbonisation commitments,” they added.
The EAC’s scathing assessment of the UK’s progress on embodied emissions of buildings the same week as a report from real estate giant JLL warned that regulation designed to address the emissions of real estate in cities is falling short of delivering the emissions reductions required to stabilize global temperature at levels recommended by climate scientists.
This research, which highlighted a wide array of regulations and reporting structures being rolled out by governments, and different metrics and definitions being adopted, said there was a greater onus on the private sector to take the lead on building decarbonisation in the wake of insufficient regulation . The report found that London real estate had the highest contribution to emissions of 32 urban centers assessed by the research.
However, there are signs of companies in the built environment sector ramping up their ambitions on net zero. Today’s EAC report follows the World Green Building Council’s announcement yesterday that seven more firms have signed up to its Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment, which requires companies to take ambitious action to combat both their operational and embodied emissions.
CannonDesign, Deutsche Bank, GI Quo Vadis, Grab, Lamington Group, QIC Real Estate, and Schneider Electric are the latest companies to have joined the green buildings initiative, which calls on firms to maximise embodied carbon emissions reductions for new developments and major renovations by 2030, while compensating for residual upfront embodied carbon emissions, as part of a whole lifecycle approach.
The World Green Building Council said businesses and organizations signed up to the commitment now account for approximately 7.2 million tons of CO2 portfolio emissions annually, nearly 20,000 assets and more than $415bn annual turnover.