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Post-COP26: What's next for the built environment?

low carbon materials natasha boulding and scott bush on cop 26 photo

The COP26 conference in November has brought the environment to the top of the global agenda. But now that the dust has settled, what are the lasting effects of the decisions made, and where will the construction sector go next?

Understanding the fast-paced and inevitable changes required of the industry is crucial for forward-thinking architects, contractors, developers and all other built environment stakeholders. This article will guide you through the key construction sector updates from COP26 and their implications.

So what happened at COP26?

The building and construction sector is responsible for 38% of energy related global carbon emissions (UKGBC 2021). This made it a key point of discussion at the conference and, for the first time, the theme of a dedicated ‘Cities, Regions and the Built Environment’ day at the conference.

However, as a justifiably risk-averse sector with long project spans, initiating the change required by global net-zero targets is challenging.

Moreover, the change required is fast-paced. The UK carbon budgets are frontloaded, promising a 78% cut in annual carbon emissions by 2035 (DBEIS 2021). Within the sector, internal targets set by the UK Green Building Council include suggestions for immediate action.

As a result, the focus of COP26 was to provide a roadmap for a smooth but efficient transition towards a net-zero construction industry.

The move towards 'whole life' considerations

The central takeaway for construction sector members post-COP26 are the changes to what is and will be measured when discussing environmental impact.

Operational carbon (the carbon released by the building whilst occupied) continues to be a significant theme.

However, COP26 encouraged discussions of further-reaching measurements.

Rather than simply considering the carbon output of an occupied building, stakeholders and regulators are emphasising ‘whole life’ footprints.

Therefore, the built environment’s carbon footprint now includes the efficiency of a lived-in building and other considerations such as the carbon output of the materials (embodied carbon), construction period, and end of life process.

Key policy update: The UK Green Building Council: Net Zero Whole Life Carbon Roadmap

The Roadmap, published during COP26, was a landmark report on decarbonising the construction sector.

It outlines the importance of considering ‘whole life’ carbon and provides industry-wide actions for achieving net-zero construction in the UK.

Significantly, the Roadmap focuses on the embodied carbon throughout each stage. This includes ensuring that ‘by 2030, all new buildings, infrastructure and renovations will have at least 40% less embodied carbon’ (UKGBC 2021).

The recommendations for policymakers also reflect this prioritisation of embodied carbon. The Roadmap suggests introducing mandatory measures and reporting for large buildings from 2023.

It also suggests that central stakeholders take immediate action to establish embodied carbon targets and whole life estimates in their projects. The recommendation includes trade associations, funders, developers and architects.

In short, the report states that measuring and reducing ‘whole life’ carbon on a construction project needs to happen rapidly to achieve the government’s net-zero targets.

With forty-four signatories from the industry who have a total annual turnover of $85 billion, the quick introduction of embodied carbon targets as a common standard is highly likely.

Whole-life carbon is already on the agenda

Since COP26, the construction industry has already begun implementing ‘whole life’ measurements.

For example, two Roadmap signatories, British Land PLC and Willmott Dixon stated that reducing embodied carbon is central to their future decision-making (UKGBC 2021).

Arup has committed to whole-life carbon assessments for every building project from 2022.

These developments highlight how the consideration of embodied carbon and lifecycle assessments will be central to the construction sector post-COP26.

Sphera at COP26

Sphera develops product-based solutions to solve technical challenges within the building materials sector whilst positively impacting the environment.

Sphera’s carbon negative lightweight aggregate can be used in concrete and is currently being trialled in concrete blocks.

This new aggregate offers a tangible solution for significantly reducing the embodied footprint of a construction project.

Sphera’s CEO, Dr Natasha Boulding, discussed this solution on SCI’s COP26 panel of next-generation scientists ‘Countdown to Planet Zero Combating Climate Change with Chemistry.’

Discussing waste re-use, fuels of the future and engineering nature, other organisations on the panel and sponsors included Croda, Unilever, GSK and AstraZeneca.

The importance of measuring

A repeated theme during the panel was the importance of measuring environmental impact as the first step to mitigation. This applies to the built environment in the increasing demand for accurate ‘whole life’ carbon footprint information and material ‘EPDs’ (Environmental Product Declarations).

In fact, the UKGBC’s Roadmap categorises supply chain EPDs as ‘immediate action’ (UKGBC 2021).

We also need to rethink our waste

The panel also discussed the opportunities for waste re-use.

The potential of circular economy practices for wastage between industries is an opportunity for innovation.

For example, Sphera’s aggregate is made from waste industrial plastics that would not otherwise be recycled.

Watch the video below to learn more about Sphera and listen to the COP26 panel:

Innovation and business at COP26

Finding solutions in a traditional, carbon-intensive sector like construction requires innovation. COP26 provided a platform for knowledge sharing to begin this valuable process.

With this goal, the Sphera team was also part of Net Zero Now’s ‘Forget 2050’ event with Tech Nation. We exhibited alongside other innovative businesses such as Tred, Oxwash, Solivus and Agreena.

So, what happens next?

With regulation expected to demand a significant change in the construction industry, innovation and solution-sharing is the way forward.

Moreover, the move towards ‘whole life’ and embodied carbon in the sector has changed how the built environment will measure and reduce its impact on the environment.

Sphera’s product-based solutions are helping the construction sector build a net-zero world.

Get in touch to find out how you can reduce the embodied carbon of your next project.

In short

Whether it’s transportation links, operational carbon emissions from energy waste or the embodied footprint of your materials, the carbon footprint of your new design has never been more crucial.