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How Can We Improve The Negative Impact Construction Has On The Environment?

For decades, the environment has suffered because of the devastating human impact on our planet caused by industries that pollute, destroy and waste. Rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses have contributed to global warming to such an extent that climate change has reached a crisis status and poses one of the largest global threats of our lifetime. According to the United Nations General Assembly, we have only 11 years left to prevent irreversible damage to our planet caused by climate change. Quite a shocking statistic for a world that has been in existence for 4.54 billion years.

Among industries such as Fuel, Agriculture, Fashion, Food Retail, and Transport, it is Construction that is one of the worst offenders in the world for dangerously impacting the environment. One of the most significant contributory factors is its detrimental consumption of raw materials, with 400 million tonnes of material on average uprooted from the earth every year. The industry is responsible for an obscene 50% of all natural resource extraction worldwide. According to research conducted by Bimhow, the construction sector contributes to 23% of air pollution, 50% of climatic change, 40% of water pollution, and 50% of landfill waste. The construction industry is responsible for 36% of global energy use and within the UK alone is accountable for 47% of carbon dioxide emissions. This alarming data is forcing the construction sector to analyse its carbon footprint and understand why the industry is having such a huge impact on the environment and how this can be reduced.

In This Article, with support from Coreus Group and Carbon Plan Engineering, Key Account Manager Phil Osborne will explore exactly why the construction industry has such a detrimental impact on our environment and what steps we must take to improve it.

Why Does Construction Have Such a Negative Environmental Impact?

Climatic Change

Construction’s contribution to climate change has one of the largest negative impacts on the environment, and we know that the mining of irreplaceable natural resources, depletion of raw materials, and the destruction of natural habitats have a damaging effect on the Earth’s vital signs. Construction processes, material manufacturing and design all play a key role in climate change. Before works even commence on site, materials such as steel and plastic have undergone a manufacturing process that relies on the fossil fuel industry, a sector that has raised environmental concerns for its significantly harmful contributions to CO2 emissions.

Air Pollution

Another consideration is the construction’s active participation in harmful air pollution, which stems from the diesel equipment used on site. Machinery can have an operational longevity meaning equipment is not regularly updated for more energy-efficient models, and not subjected to the same emissions standards as on-road vehicles. Poor air quality, from diesel emissions, causes a range of different respiratory conditions. 40,000 deaths in the UK each year are reported to be a direct result of conditions caused by air pollution. As well as machinery, the use of certain materials and disruption of the land causes bad air quality. According to research carried out by the London Atmospheric Emissions Inventory, construction sites are responsible for approximately 7.5% of damaging nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, 8% of large particle emissions (PM10) and 14.5% of emissions of the most dangerous fine particles (PM2.5). Dust from demolition also makes a minor contribution to air pollutants, in addition to noise pollution caused by such activities and machinery.

Water Pollution

As sites are cleared for construction, damage is sustained below the surface level, and if water is present this will involve having to either re-route it or implement a dam system, which can have a big impact on the local area. A big problem is sediment created from the silt from loose soil that pollutes the rivers and lakes causing fatalities to natural aquatic inhabitants. It can also cause drinking water contamination, dangerously affect fisheries, and contribute towards flooding issues. Other pollutants can end up polluting the waterways, such as chemicals, oil, paint, and construction site debris.

Destruction of Habitats

Construction has a damaging impact on natural ecosystems. The loss of natural habitats can force wildlife into urban areas, upset the natural balance and in some cases lead to species extinction.

Landfill Waste

This refers to the huge amount of construction waste material that makes up most of the industrial waste in landfill sites. Demolition projects are responsible for nearly all the construction waste material, meaning that these materials, such as plastic, metal, wood, and concrete, cannot be repurposed.

Alan Calcott, Carbon Plan Engineering, Commented: “I believe that now most people are aware that everything we do has an impact on the environment and while most of these are negative, it is possible to reduce the impact of what we do. It is also possible to take a conscious decision to make a positive impact and the analysis undertaken by Carbon Plan Engineering on the impact of grid decarbonisation shows that by paying a carbon offset of around £30/m2 and spreading this over 30 years – assuming low carbon heating systems and energy-efficient design – would result in a carbon negative building by 2035 to 2040 for most larger projects”.

What Can the Industry Do to Improve?

There is no question that construction plays a huge part in our lives, we need buildings to live, work and socialise in. They are integral parts of our society and communities. But the danger is we are consuming natural resources at an unsustainable rate. It is not an option to simply run out of materials or destroy the natural environment which we all depend on for survival. It is therefore essential for the construction industry to take ownership and responsibility for the impacts of the built environment and its symbiosis with the natural environment.

Sustainability is crucial to improve and reduce the harmful impacts construction has on the environment. Adopting sustainable construction methodologies is crucial to finding the balance between capital cost and long-term asset value. Building design plays a key role in biodiversity, where consideration must be given to creating spaces that enhance a healthy and ergonomic environment, are economically viable and are respectful of the surrounding ecosystems.

The rules set out by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) make it clear that the environment must be a top priority when a new construction project is considered. Construction companies have a duty to advise all contractors of the environmental rules and abide by them.

Whilst change cannot happen overnight, the industry is implementing many procedural changes to mitigate its effects on the environment. Many green building standards now include site analysis to ensure vulnerable waterways and wildlife habitats will not be dangerously impacted and there are design, installation, and maintenance procedures to improve erosion and sediment controls and ensure soil stabilisation to drive down the impacts of water pollution. Sustainable waste management solutions and the reuse of materials such as brick, stone and concrete will reduce the volumes of landfill waste and repurposing the carbon-intensive material concrete will have significant reductions to carbon footprint.

The United Nations published a report in 2019 on efficient material usage strategies for a low-carbon future, specifically asserting the role construction must play to achieve the goals stipulated in the Paris Agreement. This globally accepted agreement outlines the environmental targets to fight climate change. The UK Government has committed to an ambitious new climate target to reduce carbon emissions by 78% by 2035.

At Procure Partnerships we take an environmentally conscious approach to procurement and are committed to supporting our clients with their environmental goals. We ensure our contractors and supplier partners share our environmental ethics and principles, which are to build a framework for a sustainable future by taking a holistic focus on procurement, allowing us to facilitate strong social, economic, and environmental impacts in collaboration with our clients.

Maxine Goodey, Director, of Coreus Group, Commented: “We have to act today, there are no more excuses. That is why Coreus is proud to be a part of the Procure Partnership Framework whereas a collective we aim to work with like-minded businesses to tackle the effects of climate change. The construction industry has made some headway into limiting its impact on the planet. However, there is still so much to be done, not just to meet the government targets but to ensure a positive future for all.

We believe that our first challenge is to truly understand a building’s carbon impact (embodied and operational) as this is the key to unlocking the measures required to really make a difference. The metrics for reporting and measures for reduction are slowly being developed as the market drives towards a net zero carbon future. We continue to support our clients on their carbon reduction journeys working collaboratively across our service streams to ensure the impact of a development is positive, through innovative thinking and solutions.”

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