Net-zero Carbon Buildings – Challenges Facing the Industrial and Commercial Development Sector

With every passing day, we continue to lose ground in the fight against climate change, and with this grows the necessity for CO2 emissions to fall to zero.

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Barry Gray

is a Co-Founder and Director of Gray Design architecture – which recently celebrated 15 years in business. He has built a firm that is known for delivering high-quality architecture, project management and commercial interior design and services across Ireland and the UK.

In recent years, European and UK Governments have committed to reaching net-zero and reducing greenhouse gases by mid-century. This article will highlight these commitments and explain precisely what net zero is, how it can be achieved, what a net-zero building is, and the challenges the industrial and commercial development sectors may face.

Government commitments

In May 2019, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), a non-departmental public body that advises the UK Government, recommended that the UK should aim to be net zero on all greenhouse gases by 2050. This would keep the nation in line with the 2016 Paris Agreement. In the Paris Agreement, Governments agreed to keep global warming below 2°C and to make efforts to keep it to 1.5ºC. Since then, the commitment to 1.5°C has been confirmed by world leaders at both the G7 and the G20 in 2021, as well as by all parties at COP26 in 2021.

What is net zero?

Net zero refers to balancing greenhouse gas emissions produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere. There are three different routes to achieving net zero, reducing existing emissions, actively removing greenhouse gases or mitigating against emissions through other proactive means, e.g. planting trees.

Why net zero?

In many sectors of the economy, technology exists that can bring emissions to zero. Electricity, for example, can be created using renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, hydro etc. Transport systems, well-insulated homes and industrial processes that run on electricity rather than gas can all help meet the objective of net-zero emissions.

In contrast, aviation and agriculture have limited technology, and it’s unlikely that emissions will be brought to zero soon. To counter this, an equivalent amount of CO2 will need to be reduced, and due to this, the target becomes net zero for the whole economy.

Defining net zero in construction

Informed by the Paris Agreement, The UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) launched its ‘Net Zero Carbon Buildings: A Framework Definition’ document at the Houses of Parliament in 2019. The document defines what achieving net-zero carbon emissions means in terms of the construction of a building and its operation and how to reduce embodied carbon levels – embodied carbon refers to CO₂ emissions associated with materials and construction processes throughout the lifecycle of a building project.

The framework sets out definitions and principles around two approaches to net-zero carbon buildings:

•  Net-zero carbon for construction: when the amount of CO2 associated with a building’s product and construction stages up to practical completion is zero or negative, through offsets or the net export of onsite renewable energy

•  Net-zero carbon for operational energy: when the amount of CO2 associated with the building’s operational energy on an annual basis is zero or negative.

Challenges

Keeping all the above in mind, we must assess how it can be applied in the industrial and commercial development sectors.

1. Industrial
According to the 2020 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions Report, the industrial sector accounted for less than 9% of UK greenhouse gas emissions. Informed by this, the Industrial Decarbonisation Strategy expects to reduce industrial emissions by two-thirds by 2035 and 90% by 2050.

The real challenge and opportunity for the sector will be to combine carbon focus with efforts to improve its productivity. This may result in companies reassessing their entire manufacturing lifecycle, which could mean changing supply chains.

Before a company begins this process, several key areas need to be considered. When designing products, companies should seek to reduce cost and waste during production and include new materials in the design process. With raw material selection, ethical and sustainable materials could be used. The production process should be seen as an opportunity to improve operational efficiency and reduce waste while implementing smart production technologies and using renewable energy sources. New shipping plans could reduce carbon footprints by choosing local suppliers where possible. In the aftermarket, companies could shift towards the circular economy model by providing spare parts, repair, recycling and disposal services to other companies or governing bodies.

2. Commercial development
According to the UKGBC Net Zero framework, there are currently no UK commercial buildings considered net zero in both construction and operation. There are two main areas of interest within the sector: existing buildings and new buildings.

With existing buildings, there are growing concerns about the high levels of embodied carbon required to run old buildings. This has led to the assumption that replacing existing buildings with energy-efficient alternatives will reduce carbon emissions. However, there’s growing support that retrofitting existing structures to increase energy efficiency may be preferable, given the embodied carbon involved in the initial construction of those structures, as well as the carbon cost of demolition.

The energy-efficiency measures intended to improve the operational emissions performance of existing buildings, announced in the Heat and Building Strategy, can be seen as an acknowledgement that retrofitting existing buildings may be more favourable than the demolition and reconstruction of existing buildings to higher standards.

It’s no surprise that new buildings are a large part of the net-zero conversation, given how the current built environment contributes to global carbon emissions.

One example of industry collaboration to change current practice is within the UK Building Regulations, which would seek to mandate a whole-life carbon assessment and limit embodied carbon emissions as part of the building design process. The proposal aims to normalise the calculation, reporting and limitation of embodied carbon emissions from the beginning of a project.

With the increasing pressure placed on organisations to reduce their embodied carbon, companies or contractors might consider a carbon budget for a construction project. This would require parties to agree upon a carbon budget and includes associated provisions to ensure progress against the budget is monitored and reported on. Although this isn’t currently widely used, it is an option that provides a valuable framework to discuss and consider in construction projects.

Summary

While future policies for reducing carbon emissions are still in development, this shouldn’t give reason to delay ambitious, forward-thinking organisations.

Companies that operate in the industrial and commercial development sectors that quickly align their purpose and strategy around sustainability, using guidance from the likes of the UKGBC, stand a much better chance of reaching net zero before new Government sanctions and regulations are introduced that could quickly impact its business.

Net zero can only be achieved by making conscious decisions to reduce CO2 levels throughout the construction process, from the design stage to project aftercare, while being adequately supported by the Government. By doing this, we can transform the industrial and commercial development sectors to be leading examples in a more sustainable and environmentally-friendly economy.

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