Construction and climate change – what can UK construction do to reduce its emissions?

Recent weather events around the world have highlighted the increasing need for us to look at our carbon emissions and how we can make effective changes that will have a direct impact on the globe. As consumers, we know that there is the impending electrification of cars. We are being encouraged to look at how we can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and how we manage our waste to cut down on the impact landfill has on the environment. But it isn’t just the consumer’s responsibility to think about the future of our planet. Many industrial processes play a huge part in the emission of carbons, so we thought we would take a look at how the construction industry’s carbon emissions impact our planet, and what we are doing to combat this.


According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the buildings and construction sector accounted for 36% of final energy use and 39% of energy and process-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2018, 11% of which resulted from manufacturing building materials and products such as steel, cement, and glass. 

Most damming is that final energy demand in buildings in 2018 rose which stands in stark contrast with the 2019 Emissions Gap Report, which states that we will have to cut almost 8% of emissions each year. Not only is the sector in climate change crisis, but the housing we are building is not energy efficient enough for us to reach these targets. 80% of carbon emissions accredited to construction come under the category ‘in use’, the emissions resulting from the behaviour that takes place in buildings. How much construction can influence this is debatable, but putting the right energy-efficient foundations in place will play a big part in this.


Where are construction emissions created?

  • Design – 0.5%: CO2 emissions will occur early from the process of design for example in the energy and transport use by architects/planners/engineers. The real scope for this sector to reduce emissions is through the impact design makes on in-use emissions such as passive/active ventilation, solar gain, etc.
  • Manufacture – 15%: A measure is included for CO2 emissions associated with the domestic production of construction products and materials as well as the emissions embodied in imported products and materials.
  • Distribution -1%: These are the CO2 emissions from transporting people and materials to and from site; broadly split into freight and business travel.
  • Onsite operations – 1%: This covers both direct and indirect CO2 emissions, such as combustion and energy use, from on-site operations.
  • In-use emissions – 83%: The emissions resulting from the behaviour that takes place in buildings.
  • Refurbishment and Demolition – 0.4%: This includes both direct and indirect CO2 emissions such as combustion and energy use, from demolition and waste removal, as well as the process of refurbishment.


Options for reducing emissions

The Climate Change Committee recently published their Sixth Carbon Budget which included emissions pathways and policy recommendations for the Manufacturing and construction sector. The report covers resource efficiency, material substitution, energy efficiency, and fuel substitution as well as carbon capture and storage in a bid to reduce the emissions that come from this sector of UK industry.


Suggestions from the CCC include: 

  • The reduction of the flow of materials through the economy and using products more efficiently.
  • Switching from high embodied-carbon materials to low-embodied-carbon materials including using wood in construction and using replacements to clinker.
  • Using energy more efficiently such as installing/improving heat recovery systems, and clustering/networking with other sites and businesses to efficiently utilise waste heat and other by-products.
  • Replacing the use of fossil fuels through hydrogen, electrical, and bioenergy heating technologies.


The UK has adopted a target of net-zero greenhouse gas emission by 2050. Whilst we are still some way off of this deadline, there is still so much more that we need to be doing, not least looking at our own behaviours as well as those of UK industry.

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