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The Effects of the Construction Industry on Climate Change by City Tech Blogger Leslie Morris

The world’s industrial sector has brought about increased access to things, often at the expense of environmental impact. The modern economic shipping infrastructure, build to accommodate trade often involves construction goods with embodied carbon (carbon emitted during the manufacture, transport, and construction use of a material). Embodied carbon can be included as an environmental impact stemming from the trading of construction materials. Brent Trenga from Construction Executive finds that the United States is the world’s largest CO2 importer, China is the largest exporter, exporting five times as much as the next country (Russia). Trenga continues saying, “since 1990, the United States has reduced its carbon emissions by 9 percent” but according to Carbon Brief, that becomes a 17 percent increase when you factor in trade. The construction industry is one of the largest and fastest growing industry worldwide. As countries strive to improve their infrastructure and build some of the greatest structures we have ever seen, we owe ourselves and the environment the right to make the best choices for our planet. When it comes to CO2 emissions, it’s easy to put the blame solely on the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. However, the building and construction industries have certainly contributed to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It’s time the industry take a look at its own CO2 contributions, and take steps to cut emissions and embodied carbon. Shane Hedmond of Construction Junky cites that forty percent of the energy used all over the world comes from buildings. Furthermore, he finds that in the next 25 years, buildings are projected to cause the most significant increase in the release of CO2 gas. This projection includes everything from the CO2 used while making materials such as concrete, to the way that buildings absorb and release air. Unfortunately, a lot of the work performed on construction sites such as demolition to clear a site- carries practices that have increased global warming. The buildings sector is  the largest global consumer of energy, which includes accounting for approximately half of all global electricity consumption. Diane Hoskins from Building Design + Construction cites Energy Information: “as of today, buildings are projected to increase their energy consumption by 1.5 % each year between now and 2040.”  Additionally, she notes that “to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius of warming, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that the global buildings sector will need to decrease its total annual greenhouse gas contribution by 77 %  by 2050.” The scale of this challenge is significant, but not insurmountable. “Two mutually reinforcing solutions will help us move the needle: first, we need to improve the energy efficiency of our buildings to limit any increase in energy demand; second, we need to incorporate more renewable resources and clean energy strategies into our projects” (Hoskins).

Construction and building professionals should not only be obligated to build safe and effective projects, but also green and sustainable structures. Some of the changes that the construction industry can make to reduce the effects of climate change include: choosing materials with lower embodied carbon and sourcing materials from suppliers that are transparent in regard to the makeup of their products. This can only be successful if the government creates policies where they  incentivize the purchasing of these materials form manufactures. The global architecture and building communities should be urged to meet several targets in line with Agriculture 2030 standards. These include recommendations from Tenga: “a fossil fuel, GHG-emitting, energy-consumption performance standard of 70 percent below the local average for that building type. That 70 percent increases to 80 percent by the year 2020, 90 percent by 2025 and becomes carbon-neutral in 2030.” I believe that large urban cities are the main contributors to this problem and in turn should be where the solution starts. This can be achieved through creating stricter  LEED policies and certification requirement. Unused waste and recycled materials are one simple option, using waste materials is one of the simplest and safest ways to protect our environment. By doing so we will cut down production equipment reduce greenhouse gases production. Concrete is the second most consumed substance on earth after water, and its production is responsible for 8.6 % of global greenhouse gas each year (Hoskins). The use and disposal of these materials makes up a building’s embodied energy footprint, and this is one of the reasons why recycling unused building materials and construction waste is so important. Trenga notes that extending the building’s life reduces the embodied carbon associated with deconstruction, demolition, waste processing and rebuilding. This can be done by architects and engineers cohesively planning and creating building that are more resilient and futuristic. Additionally, increased use of prefabricated elements and offsite manufacturing will contribute to this goal.

Climate change has been a self-inflicted wound that professional, engineers, architects, and construction managers can play a huge part in solving.  As we look towards the future countries will continue to build cities and expanding new ones at an considerable rate, but this development will not come overnight. It will be accomplished as a result of millions of intentional individual decisions made by those in the design, construction and real estate industries across the world everyday as we seek to improve our cities for the world.

Cover Image Credit: CNN – Mohd Rasfan / AFP / Getty Images /

Text Image Credit: Seth Wynes/Kimberly Nicholas, Environmental Research Letters, 2017

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