Construction called to perform on net-zero plans

The construction industry will be at the centre of developments over the next generation to combat the climate change emergency; that much must now be clear after the COP26 meeting in Glasgow. Some of this will be reflected in changes to construction contracts, possibly more decarbonisation related regulation of industry activities and a general increase in the amount of monitoring and reporting of carbon footprints.

The prize however is victory in the climate change battle; and along the way a substantial increase in work for the infrastructure industries. Some fundamental rethinking will be needed if net-zero carbon by 2050 aspirations are to be met, along with investment on a large scale, innovations in technology and approaches to how we deliver and use infrastructure.

Construction is a major carbon emitting industry, responsible according to United Nations figures for as much as 38% of global energy related emissions alone, so it is obviously going to be called upon to make major changes to the way it works. Reputations of those who do not play their part in this will be at stake, but that threat might not on its own force significant changes in behaviour – other environmental type improvements have in the past been legislation driven, so expect an increased focus on regulation to force the net-zero carbon pace.

Those who can’t keep up are likely to be left behind as the decarbonisation bandwagon rolls on; perhaps right over those who are tardy or reticent about changing their old ways. Contractors will have to find greener suppliers, and designs will have to become more efficient to minimise use of materials and to make buildings, for example, less carbon intensive in use. Re-use and recycling rather than demolish and rebuild will be considered more than before.

Net-zero related clauses can be expected to start appearing in construction contracts, as clients seek to ensure that they can boast of compliance all along their supply chains. For example, as our Guest Editor’s point out in this issue of CL, there is talk among lawyers about ‘green liquidated damages’ in contracts.

An idea of other changes that might be coming can be found in the just published UK Green Building Council’s (UKGBC) Net Zero Whole Life Carbon Roadmap, whose recommendations include a call for mandatory whole life carbon measurements and the phased introduction of embodied carbon limits for new buildings, which are currently unregulated.

Planning reforms should also be used, says the UKGBC, to prioritise reuse of existing buildings and assets. It adds that national infrastructure investment decisions should consider the impact of projects on all forms of carbon, and a National Infrastructure Integrator should be established to oversee these impacts. The report also highlights an immediate need for a national retrofitting programme to transition existing homes away from fossil fuel heating.

The industry has responded well to the call to decarbonise and the general feeling seems to be that much, maybe even all, of the decarbonisation targets can be hit by 2050, given appropriately supportive government policies and positive attitudes from the financial sector to support the investments that will be needed. The moral case for doing everything practicable towards reaching net-zero carbon has been made; the legal case will surely follow.

Nick Barrett