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Climate and Construction: Carbon reduction takes centre stage in 2022

John Bleasby
Climate and Construction: Carbon reduction takes centre stage in 2022

It’s not yet known what specific actions the Ministry of Natural Resources will take to address carbon emissions in the construction industry, only one month after being mandated with the responsibility.

While Canada is not alone struggling with its global commitments to reduce carbon, industry leaders around the world are meanwhile taking matters into their own hands.

In a 2021 international survey of 100 senior construction executives, McKinsey Global learned over half acknowledge “sustainability” as a trend that will accelerate. Furthermore, 10 per cent have already increased their investment in sustainability measures since the start of the COVID pandemic, an event seen as a change accelerator.

A popular first step on this path is for companies to adopt ESGs (Environmental, Social and Governance policies) that define corporate actions to be taken. Company leaders aren’t doing this solely because it’s the right thing; public perception of a company’s environmental consciousness, coupled with increased pressure from financiers and investors, are motivators as well.

As McKinsey explains in its report, time is not on the industry’s side.

“GHG emissions from the construction ecosystem are mainly driven by two components: raw-material processing for buildings and infrastructure (about 30 per cent of total construction emissions per year, largely cement and steel) and buildings operations (about 70 per cent),” the report says. “Given typical asset lifetimes of 30 to 130 years, we cannot wait to replace products at the end of their life cycle if we are to meet climate change mitigation targets by 2050. With roughly 80 per cent of the predicted building stock for 2050 already in existence today, there is a huge need — and opportunity — to retrofit existing assets.”

It is also becoming apparent the path to improved energy efficiency and reduced carbon inputs, whether for a new project or an existing building retrofit, is determined at the design stage.

“Design is the most important factor in determining GHG emissions over a building’s lifetime,” says McKinsey. “By the time the construction process begins, the majority of decisions affecting the project’s GHG emissions are locked in. The ability to influence a building’s lifetime emissions is highest very early in a project and before construction has started.”

Those involved in the initial stages of project planning should think of their roles in terms of morality, says David Coley, professor of zero carbon design at the University of Bath in the U.K.

In an essay titled Are buildings evil? Rethinking responsibility in the construction industry, Coley says it is morally offensive to design and construct buildings that contribute to increased carbon emissions. He calls it a form of “unconscious institutional racism.”

Strong language. However, Coley believes if more support was provided through government incentive programs, architects and planners would begin to create sustainable designs instinctively, and that developers would demand them in order to protect their investments.  

The danger is the potential for increased “green washing” of corporate objectives. Without proper measurement metrics of performance of residential buildings for example, journalist Joey Gardiner asks, “Can we tell if house builders’ net-zero commitments are any more than ‘blah, blah, blah?’”

However, verification of building performance is a controversial topic in several countries, including Canada.

Other suggestions include simply building fewer new buildings.

“We need to curtail the culture of rampant over-production in the building industry and encourage the refurbishment of functional existing buildings,” writes Anthony Thistleton-Smith, co-founder and director of Waugh Thistleton Architects.

“It is imperative that we introduce measures to catalyze both a new culture of building refurbishment and the use of low-carbon materials, so that we may stand a chance of reaching our target reductions in CO2.”

McKinsey concedes a future of net-zero carbon buildings delivered at zero cost will require a major shift.

However, they conclude, “the decarbonization and sustain­ability focus will shift inexorably toward construction and real estate, following scrutiny of other industries in recent years. At the same time, the drive toward sustainability brings significant opportunities for value creation.”

John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont.-based freelance writer. Send comments and Climate and Construction column ideas to

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