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Building a clear Buy Clean pathway critical to construction’s role in emission reduction

Grant Cameron
Building a clear Buy Clean pathway critical to construction’s role in emission reduction

The federal government and companies that produce materials for the construction industry can play a significant role in helping to reduce the amount of carbon that is emitted each year.

That’s the bottom line in a report from the Buy Clean Industry Alliance, a coalition of industry associations, think-tanks and labour and environmental groups which includes sector heavyweights such as the Cement Association of Canada, Aluminum Association of Canada and EllisDon.

The report, called Building Success: Implementing Effective Buy Clean Policies, lays out recommendations and specific actions the government and industry can take to reduce up to four million tonnes of carbon emissions a year. Actions include using lower-carbon building materials, as well as construction and design practices for publicly procured construction projects.

It summarizes the findings and ideas from a workshop that was arranged by the Alliance and Future of Infrastructure Group and attended by stakeholders across the policy area and supply chain.

The federal government has committed to a Buy Clean strategy although it has yet to be implemented.

The construction industry is the focus of the report because production of building materials is highly emissions-intensive, with iron, steel and cement making up almost four per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.

When the indirect effects of consequent market shifts are considered, emissions could eventually be reduced by as much as 13.8 million tonnes annually, equivalent to taking three million gas-powered cars off the road.

According to the authors, Canada’s public sector makes up about a fifth of all infrastructure spending in the country and wielding that spending power strategically through Buy Clean policies could have a direct impact on emissions and shift the market toward low-carbon materials.

“Since government is such a significant buyer, this creates demand for low-carbon materials and incentivizes the market to transition toward net-zero,” they say. “The opportunity is not only environmental but also economic.

“Because of Canada’s relatively green grid and ongoing efforts to reduce emissions, many of Canada’s heavy industries already produce lower emissions products than international competitors. Buy Clean policies are therefore well-positioned to support Canadian industry and Canadian jobs. This is an approach that has already been adopted by the U.S. and used to channel US$9 billion into supporting the production of clean materials, largely in the United States.”

Moving to a low-carbon construction sector also secures sustainable jobs for the future, the report states. The Canadian steel, aluminum and concrete sectors support an estimated 310,000 direct and indirect jobs. By adding other construction material sectors such as forestry and wood products, the employment number tops half a million.

However, while Buy Clean policies have enormous potential, their implementation presents a number of challenges, from data availability to cost and cultural barriers in the sector, the report notes.

“Implementing Buy Clean is a vital opportunity to learn lessons that can be applied to the entire built environment.”

To implement the Buy Clean strategy and policies at all levels of government, the report states it is crucial to identify barriers early on and formulate constructive solutions.

For example, the report points out jurisdictions are adopting their own policies to reduce embodied carbon in public infrastructure and, as a result, there is a patchwork of requirements for the industry which complicates the process.

“Buy Clean has the potential to be a transformative policy for Canada’s construction and material production sectors,” the authors state. “It can be an important tool in accelerating our net-zero transition, increasing our global economic competitiveness, and unlocking innovation in the sector.

“But, like all ambitious policies, it must be done in consultation with stakeholders, and it must recognize the challenges that industries face in overhauling legacy systems and approaches.”

Three specific pillars are identified upon which a strong policy can be built and implemented: mandating and centralizing data; building a clear Buy Clean pathway that ensures early success; and increasing awareness and decreasing risk.

The need for centralized data on the availability and cost of low-carbon materials, as well as baselines of embodied emissions of key construction materials was identified as a hurdle as well as getting complete, up-to-date, location-specific, and consistent background details on the products.

There was also concern expressed about the lack of low-carbon materials on the market and the insufficient information available to understand the financial and economic costs of using them in construction.

The report suggests governments should set predictable, performance-based requirements that ramp up over time and design procurement and delivery processes that leave room for innovation and design choices.

To increase awareness, the authors suggest governments should fund pilot projects and provide clear implementation guidance for different stakeholder groups, leverage existing internal knowledge, and find opportunities to explore lower-embodied carbon construction practices.

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