Reducing the reliance on carbon offsetting in construction

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Don McLean, CEO of IES, explores how technology and local energy systems can be utilised to decarbonise without relying on carbon offsetting in construction

In the UK, the government has committed to a target of net zero emissions by 2050. This is necessary to combat the devastating effects of climate change, as reflected in reports such as the one from the IPCC, and meeting this target is crucial if we are to remain below the critical two-degree Celsius warming threshold.

Everyone, across all sectors, has a role to play in reaching net zero and many are at very different stages of this journey. However, as the contributor of 36% of total global energy-related CO2 emissions, the built environment sector is one of those with a particular responsibility to make significant changes in order to decarbonise and reduce emissions. The September Green Alliance net zero policy tracker report shows that emissions from buildings have only fallen by 10% over the last decade and with the technology available to us, there really is no excuse for such a small reduction.

Many businesses within this sector already have their own road map to net zero which incorporates the principle of carbon offsetting: the reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases in order to compensate for emissions made elsewhere. Even the government’s own strategy relies somewhat on this principle.

Despite this, new research has revealed that 70% of those in the built environment sector believe that the government’s target to bring carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 relies too heavily on carbon offsetting. The sector and all those within it who are responsible for buildings across their lifecycle, want and need to do more to tackle emissions at the source instead of turning to offsetting, but there is little guidance on how this can be done.

The construction industry

It’s no secret that the construction industry has often been slow to take up BIM and emerging digital technologies. However, if this industry is to take its role in decarbonisation seriously, then it’s time to utilise the technology available to trigger more widespread and rapid change.

Construction is also an industry in which there is a reliance on carbon offsetting because it’s extremely difficult to complete a net zero construction project without offsetting embodied carbon emissions. Despite this, there are many ways that buildings can be both designed and constructed to reduce their consumption, lessen their emissions, and improve energy efficiency in order to reduce, or even negate, the need for carbon offsetting.

Preventing a performance gap

Often, buildings do not perform as well in practice as was predicted when they were designed. This is known as the performance gap and has become a long-standing issue in the building industry. The solution to this problem is more detailed modelling at the design stage to ensure that predictions are much more accurate, and prevent it falling on those involved later on in a building’s lifecycle to try to close the gap.

By embedding energy and performance analysis into the heart of the design process, it creates much better results further down the line, whilst also enabling measurement of the impact of different retrofits or energy conservation measures. This also comes down to collaboration across different sectors to ensure good communication across all of those responsible for the building.

Addressing this performance gap ultimately leads to less reliance on carbon offsetting for several reasons. Fewer emissions are created if a building doesn’t need to have improvement works done once built, and if detailed modelling is utilised at the planning and design stage, it is much more likely that the most energy efficient elements have been tested and chosen. In turn, the building should perform as intended, have reduced energy consumption and subsequently, lower emissions.

Using digital technology to design and construct more efficient buildings

The use of digital twin technology – virtual models of existing buildings that react as their real-world counterparts would – is not yet prevalent in the construction industry. This means that vital opportunities are being missed to create more efficient buildings and reduce the need for offsetting further down the line.

Technology makes it possible to generate virtual data, including information on carbon emissions and energy consumption, and visualise the impact of different design decisions before a building even exists, providing valuable foresight into a project. Virtual modelling needs to be used to inform design and construction in order to establish how a building can be more sustainable, from the foundations to the final touches. Additionally, detailed data-informed decisions prevent costly mistakes and the need to go back and correct or improve aspects of a building later down the line. Getting it right the first time saves time, money and most importantly, emissions.

Digital twin technology enables those in the planning and construction industry to work together to test and challenge every design element before it is installed, and establish which would be the most efficient. This enables new buildings, and retrofits to existing ones, to have the least possible energy consumption. Furthermore, the less energy a building consumes, the easier it is to power it using offsite renewable energy sources. Using this method to generate power is the best way for a building to be self-sufficient and well on the way to net zero, ultimately reducing or even eradicating the need for emissions it generates to be offset. Additionally, these renewable energy solutions and energy storage systems can be virtually identified and tested before being installed, to ensure the best performance.

Being environmentally conscious and working towards zero carbon also doesn’t have to come at the cost of building aesthetic or comfort, as use of virtual modelling can take into consideration all of these factors to ensure all those involved in the building’s lifecycle are able to plan, design, construct and operate something that fulfils all its needs. Collaboration is key if we are to meet zero carbon.

Carbon offsetting must only be viewed as a short-term solution; it’s not a viable way to tackle the long-term issue of climate change alone. Although it may currently seem like the easier method, there simply aren’t enough carbon credits to go around or to offset the amount of emissions produced across all industries. They are relatively low cost to purchase now but as demand and urgency increases, carbon offsetting is likely to become increasingly costly.

Therefore, to make up for the industries for which it will be virtually impossible to reach net zero without offsetting, such as aviation, all those involved in the built environment sector must pull their weight and try to move beyond the need to offset. By utilising the innovative and readily available technology to plan, design, build and operate more energy efficient, less carbon intensive buildings we can work towards a world where emissions are addressed at source, not offset.

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