In early 2022, the UK government published the long-awaited 'Levelling Up' White Paper as part of then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson's effort to bolster the economy post-pandemic and contribute to the climate debate. This set out to provide a pathway to reach national net zero targets and set out funding for initiatives and cities to do so.
According to the findings from research done in conjunction with the Levelling Up agenda, the construction industry was pegged as being in the group with the highest carbon emissions producing 11.4 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in 2020 – being accountable for 40% of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions. Still, it can influence over half of the UK's emissions, according to the CITB.
Exactly a year on from its release, have we, as an industry, done enough to meet these targets?
The last year has yielded a rapid response towards the growing climate discussions. Construction has been the driving force behind innovative methods to tackle the climate crisis through focusing on and emphasising the importance of sustainable engineering and design. The framework established post-pandemic has primarily focused on the delivery of construction projects mainly through the form of 'future proofing' these sites through means such as better incorporating Sustainable Urban Drainage System (SuDs) features and reducing travel mileage of workforce and materials used.
Our ethos at SPD Studio is to put sustainability first in both planning and design of our projects therefore our work is a great example of these measures being put into practice. The scheme at The Lindens, Gosfield (one of our current projects) perfectly embodies the aforementioned through its SuDS focused drainage strategy.
This has largely been effective in reducing emissions and working towards our net zero targets. Local authorities and county councils have taken a much more rigorous approach to ensuring that proposed designs are well-designed with sustainability in mind as well as making changes to their own design requirements, such as the recent increase in the climate change allowance from 40% to 45% with regard to onsite drainage strategies.
Although influential, one has to ask, is this enough?
Research that followed the White Paper suggests that the main contributor towards the industry's carbon emissions is the production and use of concrete. As it is widely used and readily accessible, it is both the thorn in our side and our saving grace. Its performance as a material and its application in construction projects make it a crucial and valuable part of construction. Thus, posing the problem of how do we ensure that it is used and applied in a sustainable way.
Because the concrete production process, mainly how the cement is made, is rather specific, little can be done to refine this other than aiming to reduce the travel mileage of the components required to make the cement/concrete. Cement manufacture produces 0.9 pounds of carbon dioxide for every pound of cement, and manufacturing a cubic yard of concrete produces roughly 400 pounds of carbon dioxide. However, the concrete used in construction projects can be made into a much more sustainable material through using recycled materials as reinforcement.
In my final project for my bachelor's, I studied the performance of concrete reinforced with recycled materials and compared their mechanical properties with that of traditional steel-reinforced concrete. The results yielded were largely positive in that many of the reinforcement options increased the performance of the concrete in areas where the results would normally be sub-par such as its failure in cracking and its performance under fire.
As a recent graduate, it was exciting to see that this innovative method had been applied in the construction of HS2. The concrete used in the construction of HS2 has steered away from the traditional steel-reinforced concrete and instead opted for recycled sections of glass- fibre reinforced polymer turbine blades. The turbine blades used had reached the end of their life cycle and were destined for the tip. Stated to be a 'world first', this would mean that the carbon emissions of the project were reduced by an estimated 90%.
The engineers and designers behind the project have used the intense amount of national scrutiny the project is under to show the industry's innovative capabilities and how this can be used to reduce our carbon footprint and get us a little closer to our net zero targets. This brings us back to the initial question of whether we have done enough as an industry to tackle our climate crisis. In summary, the rate at which we are moving is promising; we are edging ever closer to a greener society, a more sustainable society. However, there is still much more to be done. Although the methods being applied are on large-scale projects, more can be done to ensure that these are being used for a more comprehensive broader range of projects.
Written by: Regardo Pedro, Graduate Design Engineer.