Many construction firms have taken steps to reduce their environmental impact, but there is a way to go yet
As this column goes live, the UK will officially be no longer part of the European Union. Whether or not you were for or against Brexit, the uncertainty of the UK and European political situation that has loomed over us all for the last few years is beginning to clear, and for many, the breakthrough in this stalemate has signalled a bounce up in trade.
This was apparent at a recent supply chain roundtable I chaired, where the general feeling around the table was of considerable optimism. The six different companies present – ranging from demolition to fit-out specialists rated their optimism for the next 12-18 months as a seven, eight or nine out of 10.
However, as I reflected on this optimism last week while watching the fires continuing to burn in Australia, I wondered if we have all been blindsided by Brexit, election fever and the respective tension in the UK and our role within Europe. While we have sat wondering about our economic and political situation, the climate crisis continues to rage globally.
How far have we come and how far do we have to go to really build a more sustainable future?
We are all aware of the power of the people, with Extinction Rebellion making frequent headlines, schoolchildren taking Greta Thunberg’s lead and striking on a regular basis and many individuals opting for upcycled or reusable Christmas presents this year.
However, as an industry how far have we come and how far do we have to go to really build a more sustainable future?
At RLB UK, we have recognised the environmental and climate change emergency and like many other businesses, through the Construction Industry Council and the Association of Project Managers, we have pledged our support to do everything we can to stop and reverse this trend. To make this tangible within our business at the beginning of this year, we set ourselves the target to reach a net zero carbon position by 2025. Our commitment to sustainability is nothing new – we have had a carbon management plan in place since 2009 that is integral to our business, but this does take it to another level.
We are training every person in our business to be carbon aware
Individual actions are great, but collective actions are better and so we are extending this commitment to become a core component of our service delivery for clients. We are providing the tools and the support for our surveyors and project managers to challenge the environmental impact of every project we are involved with – from the outset – creating a “natural value” model which sits alongside the “financial value” model. We are training every person in our business to be carbon aware and for our practitioners to be as familiar with carbon and sustainability modelling tools as they are with Excel spreadsheets. Sustainability will be an unbroken thread throughout the business.
We know we are not the only ones making significant changes. Wates recently announced that it will be waste free and carbon free by 2025 and contractors at all tiers in the supply chain are talking about measures they are taking to reduce their carbon footprint, including trialling electric fleets, paper taping on packaging and biomass boilers for waste. What is interesting is that many of these initiatives are not being driven by the need to adhere to mandatory policies but by organisations striving for efficiencies, by individuals personally feeling they want to make a change and by understanding that their part in the process can have an impact.
The long-term investment that responsible companies are making to improve their businesses, our industry and the planet cannot be allowed to militate against them when they are tendering for work
Of course this drive to make a difference creates environmental value in the longer term, but often has a short-term financial cost. This goes back to the fundamental principles in the Construction Leadership Council’s Procuring for Value report – how we need to understand that procurement cannot be based on lowest capital cost. The long-term investment that responsible companies are making to improve their businesses, our industry and the planet cannot be allowed to militate against them when they are tendering for work.
With infrastructure and the built environment accounting for 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint, this sense of responsibility is something that has brought me personally, and professionally, some feelings of optimism. Our government became the first major economy in the world to pass laws to end its contribution to global warming, requiring the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, compared with the previous target of at least 80% reduction from 1990 levels. As part of this the commitment, the Clean Growth Grand Challenge was bought forward by 20 years – with now only 10 years remaining to meet the 2030 target “to at least halve the energy usage of new buildings”. But we also know that at least 80% of our infrastructure – be that within housing, healthcare, education, transport, power or commercial – which will exist in 2050 has already been built and so the even bigger challenge will be the decarbonisation of existing buildings.
As we look to this new decade, and with some of the economic and political uncertainty behind us, at least for now, we need to continue to face up to this challenge ahead. Although we are taking steps in the right direction, we need to make these steps into leaps and gain momentum and pace to ensure that we have a future at all.
Ann Bentley is a global board director of Rider Levett Bucknall, a member of the government’s Construction Leadership Council and also a member of the CBI’s construction council