Construction’s Opportunity to Mitigate Climate Change

Contributing 37% of the world’s GHG emissions, the construction industry must implement new technologies, materials, and processes to mitigate against climate change.

Accounting for 9% of the Australian GDP, the construction industry is an ever-evolving facet of our economy. By generating approximately $360 Billion in revenue each year, and employing 1 in 10 Australians, it’s an industry we cannot do without. However, on a global scale the construction industry also emits 37% of the world’s Green House Gas (GHG) emissions annually. This equates to 13.7 billion metric tonnes. Such, the industry must evolve to reflect the climate crisis by implementing green building methods. Although, the industry is embedded in carbon-intensive processes and materials, so decarbonisation requires a multi-faceted approach that considers production, processing, waste management, and the life of infrastructure post-completion.

Understanding Climate Change:

Climate change, an inevitable threat to our future, poses a significant risk to everyday human life and our evolution. GHG emissions are the direct cause of global warming and ozone depletion, this affects generally everything we depend on. When GHG emissions (Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Methane, Nitrous Oxide, and Industrial Gases) are released into the atmosphere the earth is essentially “blanketed” and heat is trapped as long-wavelength infrared energy is absorbed. Such, the earth’s temperature has steadily increased by 0.06° Celsius each decade since 1880. It is worth noting, however, that global temperature records began in 1880, 120 years since the beginning of industrialisation. Such, we cannot be sure how much temperature has actually increased. While a 1° Celsius increase during this time may not seem like much, it has impacted sea levels, accelerated melting of the polar ice caps, and increased disastrous weather events. In turn, GHG in the atmosphere increases the acidity and toxicity of rain, impacting agriculture and thus the safety of our food, with Nitrous Oxide from fertiliser essentially poisoning waterways in run-off. It’s also important to consider that melting of the polar ice caps releases prehistoric disease into the atmosphere as previously frozen pathogens are freed. Due to their isolation, our bodies have not evolved to defend against these bacteria, giving rise to the potential of global epidemics.

Within the construction industry, GHG is emitted from material manufacture, transport of goods, and methods of production. A building’s emissions post-construction are to be considered as well. In turn, the industry operates under carbon-intensive processes, making it a hard-to-abate sector that is also integral to society. To mitigate its impact, we must take decisive action to reduce GHG emissions. This has led to the 2015 Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty adopted by 196 Parties. The primary goal of this agreement is to limit the global average temperature increase to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, with the ambition to cap it at 1.5°C. Achieving this goal necessitates substantial financial investment from industry bodies and governments, given the massive cost of decarbonisation projects. Despite this expense, industry stakeholders universally acknowledge two key points: the urgent need to transform energy, land production and consumption methods, and the critical importance of investing in low-carbon energy sources – such, the rise of green building.

What is Green Building?

Referred to as ‘Green Building’, sustainable construction reaches beyond a trend, positioning itself as a modern construction requirement. It is expected to be valued at $1.3 trillion by 2030, with a 170% market increase by 2032 for green materials. Interest from stakeholder bodies buoys this increase through massive investment in research and technology. The trajectory of this growth is insane – reflecting the industry-wide interest in making construction sustainable.

But what exactly defines green building, and how can it reshape our industry? At its core, green building emphasises energy-efficient designs, innovative technologies, and responsible resource management to minimise environmental impact. Green building embodies a commitment to sustainability that goes beyond conventional practices.

So, let’s explore the key trends leading this:

Renewable Energy

  • Introducing infrastructure like wind turbines, solar panels, and geothermal heat pumps reduces our reliance on fossil fuels (Fossil Fuels are the leading contributor to CO2 emissions).

Energy Management Systems

  • Energy Management Systems (EnMS) use advanced technology to measure, monitor, and adjust a building’s energy needs right when it needs it. This accelerates energy efficiencies and boosts operational cost savings.

Energy Analysis Software

  • By forecasting how much energy a building will use ahead of its construction, designers, tradies, and stakeholders can make better-informed design decisions to reduce energy emissions.

Artificial Intelligence

  • AI algorithms streamline the design process, allowing tradies, construction managers, and project managers to compare the benefits of different design options and forecast a project’s environmental impacts.

Building Information Modelling (BIM)

  • BIM reduces waste in the design process and facilitates the work to model and collaborate on various designs to produce the most sustainable options that optimise the use of natural resources and enhance energy efficiencies.

Construction Equipment Technology

  • Construction Equipment Technology tracks the performance of construction equipment through digital control systems to automate tasks, and telematics to remotely track the use of equipment.

A Focus on Materials:

16% of construction’s total GHG emissions represent embodied carbon, an offset from material manufacturing. As of 2018, manufacture alone accounts for 11% of global energy and process related GHG emissions. The energy-intensive practices required to produce certain materials such as cement in the clinkering phase account for 7% of these emissions. This results from chemical reactions that occur in a furnace when limestone and clay are calcified, calcium carbonate is decomposed, and fossil fuels are heated to create cement. By partially replacing the limestone and clay compound with civil construction waste (CCW), CO2 emissions can be reduced by 8.1%. Using other supplementary cementitious materials (SCMs) such as fly ash or silica fume assist in this reduction as well. Following this, re-examining the properties of materials can reveal new opportunities for sustainability. Permeable concrete, for instance, not only helps manage stormwater runoff but also promotes sustainable water management.

Using recycled and renewable materials under a circular economy model, further promotes sustainability. Sheep’s wool for insulation, fast-growing cork and bamboo for flooring, and reusing steel, metal, wood, and plastic, are examples of this. Transitioning to circularity reduces waste and fosters resource efficiency. Alongside this is modular construction, referring to construction that occurs off-site where aspects of a building are built in a factory to form modules. These modules are then transported to a site, assembled, and positioned on a fixed foundation. This type of construction can reduce GHG emissions by 46.9%, with the industry expected to be valued at $235 billion by 2031. Modular construction offers a streamlined approach to sustainable development, minimising waste and maximising efficiency. Using alternate fuels, assessing energy efficiency, and focusing on carbon capture and reuse further assist in lowering emissions.

Verified sustainability ratings:

The rise of verified net-zero buildings signifies a notable trend in the shift towards sustainability. Certifications like LEED have seen a 93% increase in building design and projects since 2017, with a 152% surge in residential projects.

Governments globally are increasing efforts to incentivise green construction. Initiatives such as the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act in the US offer tax credits and grants for sustainable practices, while the EU’s European Green Deal provides financial support for environmentally friendly projects.

Green building certifications, including LEED and Green Globes, serve as benchmarks for sustainability. Initiatives like Green Star and NABERS in Australia are setting new standards for energy efficiency and indoor environmental quality.

Buildings doing everything right to be sustainable:

Source: STH BNK

STH BNK, Melbourne

Melbourne’s skyline is about to undergo a revolutionary transformation with the emergence of STH BNK—a $2.7 billion, 365m project by Beulah set to become Australia’s tallest building and the world’s tallest green tower. This architectural wonder features 5.5km of vertical gardens and sky parks, overseen by international landscape architects to ensure durability. Equipped with autonomous irrigation systems, STH BNK will keep its gardens green year-round.

(Source: Royist

Shanghai Tower

Shanghai Tower stands tall as a symbol of green innovation, towering at 632m with 128 stories. Since its completion in 2008, it has been the largest LEED platinum-certified building globally, boasting energy cost savings of over US $556,000 per year. Rainwater harvesting, wind load reduction of 24%, and wind turbines generating 350,000kwh of electricity annually showcase its commitment to sustainability.

(Source: Hamburg )

Marco Polo Tower, Hamburg

In Hamburg, the Marco Polo Tower integrates nature and architecture seamlessly. Each floor’s slight twist shields apartments from direct sunlight, while vacuum collectors and heat exchangers provide cooling using heat from the roof. Built in 2009, this residential tower epitomises innovative and sustainable urban living.

(Source: Regupol Acoustics

One Central Park, Sydney

One Central Park in Sydney sets the bar high for sustainable urban living, earning a 5-star Green Star certified rating. With features like water harvesting, green roofs, and recycling of materials, it’s a testament to reducing environmental impact. Car-sharing programs and sewer mining further underscore its dedication to sustainability.

(Source: Townshend Landscape Architects

The Crystal, London

The Crystal in London is a model of sustainable urban development. Covering 18,000 square meters, it relies entirely on electric power and ground-source heat pumps for heating, with solar panels contributing over 20% of its electricity.

(Source: STIR world

Cube Building, Germany

Germany’s Cube Building pioneers resource-saving design and energy efficiency. Coated window panes and smart energy management systems reduce heat buildup and monitor energy consumption, demonstrating how technology enhances sustainability. It represents a future where energy-efficient design meets innovative technology for a greener world.

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