Decarbonising construction: Plotting your path to net zero

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After what has been a challenging 18 months for many industries, construction included, one issue that has come to the fore is sustainability. Anthony Ainsworth, COO at E.ON UK and npower Business Solutions (nBS) explores how we can decarbonise the built environment

We saw a flurry of government announcements in late 2020, including the ten-point plan for a green industrial revolution, closely followed by the publication of the long-awaited Energy White Paper and National Infrastructure Strategy, with much more promised for 2021. However, we are still waiting for the announcement of several key policies and strategies that will provide further action around the net zero ambition.

While the Industrial Decarbonisation Strategy was published in March 2021, the crucial Heat and Buildings Strategy is still (at time of writing) to be published.

The decarbonisation of the built environment is an extremely challenging area to tackle. It is estimated that the built environment contributes up to 40% of the UK’s emissions – including the construction, operation and maintenance of buildings – with the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) stating that around 10% of emissions are directly attributable to construction.

This includes everything along the supply chain, from the manufacturing of building materials – typically a highly energy intensive process – through to transportation and the construction process itself.

Steps are already being taken to address the decarbonisation challenge. Last year, UK Concrete published its ‘Roadmap to Beyond Net Zero’ which looked at how net zero can be met through decarbonised electricity and transport networks, fuel switching, the use of low-carbon cements and concrete as well as using newer technologies such as carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) for the manufacturing of cement.

Construction businesses are setting their own ambitious targets

The UKGBC has also published guidance – ‘Unlocking the Delivery of Net Zero Buildings’ – designed to help break down barriers when it comes to designing and constructing net zero buildings.

Wates Group has set their target of zero waste from all on-site operations and zero carbon emissions from operations and vehicle fleets by 2025. Manufacturers are also committing to ambitious targets, with brick maker Ibstock recently announcing that it had chosen its Atlas facility in the West Midlands as the location for what it claims will be the world’s first net zero carbon brick factory.

There is a focus on how the industry can reduce carbon in the way infrastructure assets are designed, built and maintained. With this in mind, what are the top steps construction businesses can take in the short to medium term to reduce emissions and embark on their road to net zero?

Procure ‘green’ power

uying and using renewable power for offices and plants is one of the main ways to offset carbon emissions. There are two potential options. The first is generating local energy by installing on-site generation. The second is by buying energy from local generation schemes – for example large-scale solar or wind solutions – via a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA).

When it comes to on-site generation, there is now a great deal of choice including solar photovoltaic (PV), wind or combined heat and power (CHP). Organisations need to make sure that any plans for on-site generation are scoped appropriately, so they can assess where the payback and benefits are – for example, for companies with large plants that have significant roof spaces, car ports or adjacent land or water, solar PV may be the best option.

We recently produced a guide ‘Plot Your Path to Net Zero: A Focus on Sustainable On-Site Generation’ – which outlines the different routes to take, as well as advice on how to fund them, including PPAs.

Use sustainable materials

As mentioned, producing building products can be a very energy intensive process. Therefore, looking at more sustainable materials – which contain lower embodied carbon – should be high on the agenda. It is important to assess the low-carbon credentials of each product used as part of the construction process.

For example, as part of its ‘Roadmap to Beyond Net Zero’, UK Concrete stated that “a net negative industry by 2050 will be achieved by using the natural, in-use properties of concrete which include its ability to absorb carbon dioxide during use, and the benefit of using the thermal properties of concrete in buildings and structures to reduce operational emissions.”

Green your fleet

In its Ten Point Plan, the government outlined it would invest £20m in 2021 on freight trials to pioneer hydrogen and other zero emission lorries. It also announced its intention to accelerate the move to electric vehicles (EVs) and Ofgem recently announced a £300m investment for over 200 low carbon projects, including new infrastructure to support 1,800 new ultra-rapid charging points at motorway service areas.

However, while the cost of EVs is currently higher than petrol or diesel, the benefits should outweigh the negatives. For example, moving to EVs will help reduce Scope 3 emissions, which are the indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain including up and downstream transportation and distribution, which can often be a requirement for customers’ sustainability targets.

Invest in energy efficiency

Energy efficiency is a ‘no regrets action’, particularly if you have a plant, office or on-site premises that could benefit from relatively ‘quick wins’ such as switching to more efficient lighting, air conditioning and heating, as well as bigger investments such as implementing a smart energy management system.

Using real-time data collection and analysis can enable your business to spot and correct areas of waste, or to assess the effectiveness of each new energy efficiency measure implemented. An energy audit can identify improvements including looking at times of use, efficiency of infrastructure and processes, and how to change employee behaviour to help reduce emissions or costs.

Improve waste management

Waste is often produced when excess materials are ordered for a project. Each of these additional products has a carbon footprint attached to it, so accurate estimating is crucial, as is having an effective recycling strategy, so these materials can be reused on other projects.

While we are awaiting the announcement of further policies and strategies, as the UK prepares to host COP26 in November 2021, sustainability will be one of the biggest areas of focus for business. Therefore, collaboration across the whole construction process and between all parties – including developers, designers, engineers, contractors and building products manufacturers – will be key to success.



Anthony Ainsworth


I&C Energy Sales and Solutions

E.ON UK and npower Business Solutions (nBS)


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