The construction industry is one of the main drivers of environmental degradation in the world, and is on track to miss crucial emissions targets.
The sector is responsible for about 23% of air pollution, 40% of drinking water pollution, and 50% of all landfill wastes globally.
The built environment also accounts for 30% of total global final energy consumption and 27% of total energy sector emissions, according to the IEA.
The impacts of climate change and environmental damage are already felt by people around the world, from melting ice caps and glaciers in the polar regions, to more frequent and severe weather events across the globe, increasing the risks of wildfires, floods and droughts. Rising sea levels and stronger storms also threaten coastal communities.
As public awareness and concern are growing, governments are taking action — setting environmental goals to prevent runaway global warming and reverse ecological destruction.
The construction industry needs to rethink its role in how humans interact with the planet to stay ahead of the forces shaping global business.
Here are five key ways to do this:
Instead of new constructions that use a lot of resources, renovating existing buildings should play a bigger role.
Older buildings tend to be less efficient than newer ones, and refurbishment can improve insulation and reduce energy use.
The International Energy Agency called for 20 per cent of all existing buildings to be renovated by 2030 to meet the world’s climate targets, and said it should be a “key” focus of the construction industry’s decarbonisation efforts.
The organisation has called for an annual “deep renovation rate” of over 2% from now to 2030 and beyond.
Plan for long-term environmental benefits
If new building works are necessary, they should consider their shape, function and impact on society, and how to minimise them. This starts with planning.
Urban planners can make the built environment more eco-friendly by adopting green design approaches at an early stage.
This includes using less land, connecting to public transport networks and walking and cycling paths to discourage car use, and increasing access to green and blue spaces such as parks and water bodies, which can improve air quality, protect some natural resources and boost the health and well-being of the people in the environment.
Moreover, implementing high Environmental Social Governance (ESG) standards within the industry is becoming increasingly important. As pressure for the construction industry to clean up its act grows, so too is the requirement for ESG standards, which should one day become mandatory and universal system for evaluating the sustainability of both new developments and renovated buildings.
Use passive design and renewable energy
Passive design features combined with renewable energy can significantly lower the carbon footprint of a completed building when it is in use.
This starts with choosing suitable building locations and orientations to make the best possible use of the natural environmental conditions.
Then, layout of rooms, window design, insulation, thermal mass, rain collection, shade and ventilation, all play important roles in making a building as efficient as possible.
Passive House — certified homes use an estimated 80% less energy for heating and cooling than conventional buildings.
With the addition of solar panels or wind turbines for power generation and water heating, energy demands — and therefore environmental impacts — can be even lower. A new generation of photovoltaic solar-tiles promise even greater levels of flexibility and enhanced returns on investment.
Meanwhile, geothermal heat pumps and air-source heat pumps have enormous levels of efficiency in comparison to traditional gas boilers.
Reduce concrete use
Concrete is the most widely used man-made material in existence and is second only to water as the most-consumed resource on the planet.
Described as “the most destructive material on earth”, the production of cement, which is used to make concrete, is responsible for up to 8% of global CO2 emissions. If it were a country, it would be the third largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world after China and the US, producing up to 2.8bn tonnes of CO2 a year.
Reducing cement use is essential. This can be done by using recycled materials in the mix, using less cement, and using alternative materials such as fly ash or slag.
Choose sustainable building materials
As well as reducing or changing concrete use, there are also various alternatives to concrete that have a much lower environmental impact. These include hempcrete, which is made from hemp plants mixed with a lime-based binder. This forms a lightweight, breathable construction material with excellent insulation properties.
Another alternative is rammed earth, which is made by compressing soil into a formwork. It is durable, low-maintenance, and has excellent thermal mass properties.
Other exciting modern breakthroughs in construction materials include straw bale construction, cross-laminated timber (CLT), and bamboo, all of which can often be produced with low impacts to the environment, and match existing construction materials for strength and practicality.
For companies to thrive and survive, embracing the health of our planet is a must. With the COP28 summit in Dubai on the horizon, and the hosts warning that the IPCC has already “made it crystal clear that we are way off track”, the importance of adopting ambitious targets to achieve sustainable building has never been greater.
— Dr Abdullah Belhaif Al Nuaimi is a former UAE minister of Infrastructure Development and for Climate Change and Environment