UK emissions are expected to exceed the government’s fourth and fifth carbon budgets, which set emissions targets in the 2020s and 2030s. However, new research shows that improving resource efficiency in the construction sector alone could halve projected excess carbon emissions in the 2020s
The government is considering a net zero carbon emissions target for 2050. But UK carbon emissions are currently projected to exceed legally binding carbon budgets in the 2020s and 2030s.
Government climate policy has been reducing emissions from running vehicles and heating and powering buildings, but it has so far ignored the huge source of emissions from resource use in five key industrial sectors, the most significant being the construction sector.
Addressing this could reduce emissions by substantially more than other climate policies: between now and 2032, resource efficiency could save more than part L of the government’s Building Regulations, which has been very effective in reducing operational emissions from buildings.
Research from the Centre for Industrial Energy, Materials and Products (CIEMAP), a collaboration of four UK universities, shows that action now to put less material into the production process and get more out of materials used in five key sectors could cut UK carbon emissions by 200 MtCO2e by 2032. This is equivalent to more than half of the UK’s annual CO2 emissions.
The analysis shows that the construction sector is the biggest source of potential savings. While the industry has already reduced operational emissions by 32% since 1990, embodied emissions have only dropped by 6%. This could be altered through measures like substituting high carbon building materials like steel and concrete for lower carbon materials like timber for relevant applications. Cutting carbon can also be achieved by reusing more materials, including structural steel. Efficiency gains in this sector alone could halve excess emissions in the fourth carbon budget period.
Becoming more efficient could have organisational benefits too, lowering costs by reducing material use, which will be increasingly important to the industry post-Brexit.
Germany’s Resource Efficiency Programme (ProgRess) has a target of doubling resource productivity by 2020. The report, published in partnership with Green Alliance, recommends the government follows Germany’s example, setting up sector specific ‘resource efficiency partnerships’ to speed up the identification of opportunities and spread innovation.
Baroness Brown of Cambridge DBE FREng FRS, said: “It is always tempting to see new technologies as the way to reduce emissions. It is easy to see the opportunities for both economic growth and emissions reduction from exciting new developments like electric vehicles.
“But this important report challenges us to address the less obvious, but significant opportunities that also come from using less and reusing more. And that doesn’t have to mean less economic growth. Using materials more efficiently reduces input costs, which will help companies create successful business models around longer lasting products.”
Professor John Barrett, director of CIEMAP, said: “Our research shows that resource efficiency is an effective and unexplored opportunity to bridge the UK’s emissions gap. Looking beyond energy policies will also be needed if we are to achieve international climate ambitions, such as those set out in the Paris Climate Agreement. This is an important part of the jigsaw if we are to achieve net zero emissions.”
Libby Peake, senior policy adviser on resources at Green Alliance, added: “The government recently announced that it is considering how the UK can become a net zero carbon economy. We can’t get there if we only target vehicle emissions and leaky homes. This analysis shows that reducing resource use is a new and powerful tool for governments wanting to achieve clean growth and net zero emissions. Given the huge potential to cut carbon, the construction industry is the perfect place to start.”