If everyone simply asked suppliers for their environmental impact data we would quickly build up a picture of our combined emissions - so let’s get cracking

We already knew achieving net zero by 2050 will be a huge challenge for the construction industry. The recent Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction showed just how big the challenge is – it found that sector’s energy consumption and CO2 emissions have rebounded from the pandemic to an all-time high.

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The report found the sector’s operational energy-related CO2 emissions reached 10 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent – 5% over 2020 levels and 2% over the pre-pandemic peak in 2019. This, according to the report, means that the gap between the climate performance of the sector and the 2050 decarbonisation pathway is widening.

We need to grasp the nettle, and to do this we need to set a laser-like focus on Scope 3 emissions. Scope 1 emissions – those that we’re directly responsible for such as powering a fleet of vehicles – and Scope 2 indirect emissions – such as those power companies produce when making the electricity we use – are relatively simple to account for. But Scope 3, the emissions we’re indirectly responsible for, up and down our value chain – such as those produced by the companies who make the products we purchase – are much more difficult to quantify.

To be blunt, the industry is miles off working out how to tackle Scope 3 emissions. This is perhaps understandable as they’re one step removed from usual accounting processes. But it’s the elephant in the room – cutting Scope 1 and 2 alone won’t get us to net zero because Scope 3 accounts for 40-60% of global emissions. The problem is that no one is talking about how to solve this conundrum.

So how are we at McBains addressing this? We are now asking our suppliers and customers for their Scopes 1 and 2 and holding them to account if they haven’t done enough to reduce them. Likewise, we expect others to hold us to the same standards.

If suppliers calculate their own Scope 1 and 2 emissions – something most are now required to do –  it is simply a case of requesting these and including them in a spreadsheet

Asking companies we work with for their environmental impact and emissions are might sound like a lot of work, but this isn’t an unusual demand and we are starting to do this alongside requests for things like quality assurance accreditation, insurance details, financial information and so on.

Our industry is increasingly based on data: the Building Safety Act introduced the Golden Thread, for example, and now construction projects must have a single truth, a record of all work done and to what standard, agreed and verified by all. This must be kept for the lifetime of the building, in a digital format that is easily accessible for any who want to access it. Digital twins are a mainstay of planning and design and rely, too, on a wealth of information. All this gives some idea of the ecological footprint and asking for emissions is just the next step.

>> Also read: Building the Future Commission: introducing the energy and net zero stream

>> Sustainability: Estate decarbonisation

Data is gold. This includes data availability and data quality. Scope 3 emissions accounting can be a complex task that heavily relies on information that is shared from the value chain. These emissions can be Scope 1 and 2 for the value chain itself so it is important that all sectors contribute to better understanding our combined impact. If suppliers calculate their own Scope 1 and 2 emissions – something most are now required to do –  it is simply a case of requesting these and including them in a spreadsheet.

Providing each organisation also requests these from their supply chains too, you can quickly build up a picture (a family tree, if you like) view of what end-to-end emissions look like. It isn’t perfect, but perhaps what is most important is not necessarily that the overall number is correct, but that it is the beginning of an attempt to join all the dots up, which in itself, gets businesses thinking about their own, and their supplier’s attitude, and behaviours. If you can look at the overall picture (even if imperfect) and compare progress year on year, the trend is probably the most important thing to look at, to gauge how well or not we are doing as a whole.

For our projects we advocate for the use of life-cycle assessments using software like OneClick LCA, for cradle-to-grave assessments and the use of Environmental Product Declaration in construction. As new data technology emerges and more high-quality data is generated we expect to see a rise in software and tools that can process this complex information and provide accessible summaries and dashboards that enable rapid review and assessment of where you business is from a net zero, and specifically, scope 3 point of view.

If this request is repeated all down the supply chain, and everyone asks the same question of each other, we can start to really make inroads in addressing Scope 3 as an industry.

Mark Leeson is operations director of McBains