As the dust settles after COP26, nations and industries are left to reflect on what Glasgow’s deal means for them

COP26 was never going to suddenly fix everything. Now, more than ever, individuals and industries must step in. And when it comes to cutting down on earth-warming emissions, construction has a bigger role to play than most.

The responsibility of construction

The construction industry is well known for its emissions contributions. Before the pandemic, reports estimated that building operations and construction were responsible for 38% of total global energy-related CO2 emissions. The built environment is crucial in meeting the needs of our growing global population but it’s currently endangering our future too.

The industry is also wrestling with waste. In the EU, construction and demolition waste makes up 25-30% of total waste generated, adding to landfill sites and leaching pollutants into the environment. Not only this, landfill directly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions as decomposing waste produces methane: a gas 80 times more potent at warming than CO2, over a 20-year period.

And it’s not just wasted materials that are a problem. Construction rework – from improperly completed projects or defect corrections – wastes time, energy and resources as work must be completed twice. This emissions-adding inefficiency is something neither the planet nor construction firms can afford.

What our industry can do

The climate challenge for construction is big, but that doesn’t mean our hands are tied. Instead of giving up, we need to be looking for ways to cut down on waste, rework and emissions.

Central to this effort is technology, and, within this, the use of data.

Fixing a problem starts with knowing the size of it. If construction firms want to minimise the use of energy and materials across a project, they need to be able to collect high quality, clean site data to assess how much is being used, and where.

This gives them an indication of resource-hungry activities and processes that should be modified to consume less, and points to areas of inefficiency. Being able to continuously log accurate data is also important in ensuring a project is on track to meet certain environmental specifications; for example, meeting BREEAM targets.

In order to effectively do all this, construction firms need easy to use digital tools that make it simple for site operatives to capture and input data. A site team must be completely comfortable with the tools they’re using if those tools are to collect high quality data – if they’re overly complex or confusing, this will result in inaccurate figures or record gaps. And the data that’s generated from the site needs to be accessible in real time and stored in one, central location to ensure everyone is working with the latest information and silos don’t develop.

Data can also be used to tackle the sector’s rework problem. If high quality data can be collected, firms can apply AI and machine learning to tools to generate forward looking metrics: for example, to identify areas that are leading to rework.

This allows firms to work out what’s going wrong and step in before another project needs some parts redone and waste is carted off to landfill.

And the use of data to support sustainability is also developing. Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags are already being used to monitor materials and workers at construction sites, and there’s potential to develop this further. There’s an opportunity to explore RFID tools to track the carbon footprint of buildings to enable firms to choose materials and ways of working that use less carbon.

These ideas sound good in theory – but they work in practice too. For example, BW: Workplace Experts have been using Procore’s single construction management platform to support their sustainability strategy and work towards their goal of net zero carbon and zero waste by 2030.

Procore is helping BW monitor material use throughout their supply chain – so energy and materials aren’t being wasted and are being reused wherever possible – as well as simplifying and speeding up communication to drive down rework. These steps are crucial in controlling construction’s impact on the planet.

Recognising the role of community

But action can’t happen in isolation. Another standout message from COP26 was the interconnected nature of the climate crisis, its impact and our reaction. Emissions and waste don’t just affect the area where they’re produced: what one country and industry does affects everyone, and some will bear the brunt more than others. Recognising the role of community – both in our responsibility to others and the opportunity to learn from others’ ideas – is essential in responding to the climate crisis.

Taking this message into construction, we need to find ways to promote collaboration across the industry, so we’re learning from, and accountable to, each other.

Historically, construction has had an adversarial element to it, with tension between project partners and a propensity to pass on blame. This is obstructive on a project level and a planet one, wasting time and getting in the way of finding solutions.

To see real, lasting behaviour change we need to push for collaboration across a supply chain – again, construction management tools can support this by improving communication – but also between construction firms.

Championing progressive sustainability frameworks, sharing tools and techniques that worked (and being honest about those that didn’t) and being open to trying new, sustainable ideas are what’s needed to productively collaborate and shake up the sector.

In the wake of COP26, countries must go away and review their emissions targets but industries like construction have their own homework too.

Time is running out to make our sector more sustainable and we need to not only identify, but implement, ways to reduce our climate change contributions. Technology can provide critical support here but it’s getting the right attitude that will lay the foundations for success. Climate change isn’t someone else’s problem: it’s ours.

 

Tom Noctor

climate construction

Procore

Team Lead

Strategic Product Consultants

Twitter: @procoretech

LinkedIn: Procore Technologies

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