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Engineer in hard hat | © 123rf.com

7 ways to tackle embodied carbon in the building and construction industry

04 Aug 2020

Keywords
  • carbon pollution
  • climate change
  • greenhouse gas emission
  • new south wales

By Monica Richter, Senior Manager, Low-Carbon Futures at WWF-Australia

 

Wherever they operate, businesses have an impact on the environment. As our natural resources continue to diminish and our carbon emissions climb, we are learning that many traditional production practices are not sustainable, and often contribute to global environmental challenges. 

2020 is a different year. The world is facing a once-in-a-lifetime challenge as we start to rebuild the economy from COVID-19. It could also be Australia’s once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring manufacturing back to our shores, grow existing industries, unlock new industries and boost global exports as we also move towards a zero carbon future. We could emerge from this crisis as a renewable energy powerhouse in a post-COVID world including reimagining how we manufacture low and zero carbon products. Recognising the growing demand for lower-carbon materials worldwide, WWF-Australia is keen to explore how we can work together to move Australia towards a zero-carbon economy and position Australia in the top five zero-carbon materials suppliers. 

The built environment sector is responsible for one quarter of Australia’s emissions. The steel and cement industries each represent about 7% of global emissions. Supported by the NSW Government, WWF-Australia has identified 7 key recommendations to reduce the emissions intensity of these sectors, and to work towards a zero carbon economy. You can read more in our latest report, The Time Is Now: Tackling Embodied Carbon in the Building and Construction Sector. If you’re after something more succinct, you can read the executive summary here

1. Approach the problem from every angle
There is no one single intervention. The most significant shift will require addressing a number of the barriers and collaborating to achieve real and lasting change - a systems-led approach across the entire building and construction sector ecosystem will provide the best chance of success. Government and industry leadership will both play a fundamental role in setting expectations that every decision should count towards achieving a zero-carbon future, and this needs to be encouraged and rewarded. 

2. Leadership from state governments
The strongest theme in our research was that government procurement is a key lever for change, particularly in infrastructure projects. NSW Government leadership on procurement for contracts that goes beyond traditional time, cost, and quality is needed. 

3. Form a collaborative buyers alliance
Private sector developers and constructors are willing to step up and deliver low-emissions building materials but need collaboration to drive the change all across the supply chain. Collaboration between and across industry sectors and government will be the key to success through an alliance or partnership approach. A Buyers Alliance for Reducing Embodied Carbon in Construction would have three key roles, namely: a) aggregation of demand and supply through ‘anchor customers’; b) knowledge sharing across industry sectors; and c) collaboration between industry sectors. 

4. Put low-carbon targets in contracts
Construction contracts that require and specify lower- and zero-carbon products with voluntary targets are considered global best practice and should be actively encouraged and duly rewarded by the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia (ISCA), Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA)’s Green Star rating system and other mechanisms. 

5. Update building standards in the National Construction Code
There is a need to actively embed low- and zero-emissions material building standards into the National Construction Code, as well as existing and new rating systems. 

6. Innovate via systems thinking and design thinking
Innovation across materials and industries can drive change, including systems thinking from the design and conception stage, and building resilient and local supply chains to reduce our dependence on imported materials. A Hunter Valley industrial precinct cluster with “deep demonstration” projects could provide multiple opportunities for local manufacturing of zero carbon building materials. A feasibility study could be investigated with support from industry and government. 

7. Underwrite low- and zero-carbon investments
Investors are increasingly concerned about their climate risk exposure in line with the Paris Agreement’s commitments to net zero by 2050. Consideration could be given to a Facility for Reducing Embodied Carbon underwritten by governments either through state treasury and/or the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to help finance decarbonisation projects across a number of industry sectors.

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