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Decarbonising the built environment: are whole-life carbon assessments the answer?

Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) Net Zero recommendations on decarbonising the built environment are big news. What’s next in terms of impact for the UK? Content Coms’ latest blog has the answers…

Online sustainability platform Business Green is reporting that the UK Government is considering a series of EAC recommendations on decarbonising the built environment to meet Net Zero.

Ministers, say the reports, could soon bring in proposals including a review of the National Planning Policy Framework to introduce whole-life carbon assessments of buildings, in a move which could help tackle the 25 per cent of UK emissions that come from the built environment.

The trends in more detail

Back in May ’22, the EAC’s original report hit the Commons. It showed concerns that policy has focused entirely on operational emissions, namely how to make buildings more energy efficient.

But this leaves the UK slipping behind other European countries in terms of monitoring and controlling the embodied carbon in construction too. If the UK continues to drag its feet on embodied carbon, it will not meet Net Zero or its carbon budgets.

Other issues include the fact low carbon building products are here and can meet current demand, but insufficient incentives exist to use these materials.

If the UK continues to drag its feet on embodied carbon, it will not meet Net Zero or its carbon budgets.

The EAC also didn’t like how Government states that it is promoting the re-use and retrofit of buildings ahead of demolition. The reality is, there is little evidence of this being the case. Expansion of permitted development rights for demolitions was introduced without proper consideration of carbon emissions, says EAC. This is resulting in buildings being demolished without understanding the whole-life carbon impact.

To address all these issues, the single most significant policy the Government could introduce is a mandatory requirement to undertake whole-life carbon assessments for buildings, argues EAC.

The Government’s reply…

The Government has promised to intensify its efforts and eliminate virtually all emissions arising from the built environment to hit Net Zero by 2050. It says:

‘As the Committee’s report rightly makes clear, reducing embodied carbon emissions is a challenge across the entire built environment, not just in buildings,’ says its response.

‘We agree with the Committee that whole-life carbon assessments are likely to have a significant role to play in delivering decarbonisation across the sector.

‘The Government agrees with the Committee that to consistently assess embodied carbon at a building-level, a standardised method of calculation is required, supported by a robust evidence base and underpinned by widely adopted product standards.’

The wider picture

The Government response also says its Net Zero Strategy already set out ambitions to help the construction sector improve reporting on embodied carbon in buildings and, further, that it confirmed it will explore the potential of a maximum embodied carbon level for new buildings in the future.

So far, so good, but right now UK Net Zero strategy is under review; amid a torrid political environment where there’s virtually no spare cash, perplexing new spending plans and a new justification being prepared to convince financial markets the Government can balance the books properly.

Everyone with a vested interest will be hoping the called-for whole-life carbon assessments for buildings make it into the Net Zero review. After all, said review promises to seek new growth benefits and opportunities from the Net Zero transition.

However, the review also promises to minimise costs borne by businesses and consumers, particularly in the short-term. Herein lies the challenge.

The BBC reports that £75bn of private sector investment is needed to ensure London, the UK’s largest example of built environment, meets its target to be carbon neutral by 2030, the capital’s mayor has said.

Plenty of people, politicians included, might worry about what a whole-life carbon assessment programme for buildings might cost businesses. Plus the politicians probably don’t reckon, right now, that they have any supporting cash to spare.

Our view is that the Government’s message has to be: whole-life carbon assessments for buildings are needed. We’re putting them into the new Net Zero strategy.

Get it done

Ultimately, if we assess transparently on built environment, we will identify spaces where new technologies can drive Net Zero at a reduced price to us all.

The worry is there simply is not the bandwidth or the skills-base and desire to nuance this messaging right now. Case studies will be needed and knowledge sharing and events to push best practice must happen.

We remain optimistic for positive change and a brighter, greener future.

None of this is impossible. At Content Coms; we urge Government to get it done. “We want to see a Net Zero UK built environment,” says Joanna Watchman, Founder and CEO, Content Coms.

“The challenge ahead is simply enormous. But, we understand this is a complex transition. Achieving it requires the right aspirational messaging and incentivising the right tech and reporting to hasten change. We remain optimistic for positive change and a brighter, greener future.”

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