Construction's impact on the climate - how should we respond?

16 Aug 21

If the construction industry were a country, it would be the third highest emitter of CO2 after China and the USA. This means that climate change, and action to mitigate it, is very much the business of the construction sector, GTC Director Nick Francis told participants at the GIRI forum on the climate crisis earlier this year.

The climate crisis has dominated the headlines for a number of years now, Covid notwithstanding, and it has been a high-profile topic of discussion in the construction sector in the last few months, particularly in the context of the ‘green recovery’ from the pandemic. More recently, the IPCC’s latest report on climate change makes it clear that achieving net zero carbon emissions is essential if we want to halt the devastating effects of climate change, and demonstrates the need for immediate and drastic change within the industry. 

The GIRI forum delivered some important background to the climate crisis and the construction industry and raised questions about where the construction industry should focus its response.

Nick opened the event by taking a look at what climate change means. We know the earth is getting hotter. Global temperature charts show that the years 2014 to 2018 were the hottest five years since records began, and the earth is not just getting hotter, quickly, it is also experiencing extremes of temperature and weather.

To illustrate the difference between weather and climate, Nick pointed to the summer of 1976, during which the UK experienced a period of extremely hot weather. “Compare that to 2018, and the UK experienced roughly the same weather at the same time of year, but around the rest of the globe, temperatures were higher everywhere. The UK’s heatwave of 1976 was a period of hot weather, because it was localised. In 2018 we experienced the same high temperatures due to weather but temperatures globally had increased because of climate change.”

And it is the very rapid rate of global temperature change that indicates something significant is going on beyond normal long-term fluctuations in global temperature.

That something is human activity. Participants at the forum were shown a short video that explained how human activity since the industrial revolution has upset the natural equilibrium between the carbon added to the atmosphere by natural processes (carbon sources) and that which is removed each year through natural processes (carbon sinks). Human activity currently adds about 5% additional carbon a year, and as a result carbon is building up in the atmosphere, affecting its ability to trap heat. The more carbon in the atmosphere, the hotter the planet gets.

In 2020, humans added nine gigatonnes of carbon to the atmosphere (one gigatonne equals 1,000,000,000 tonnes). Scientists estimate that we need to limit the carbon we add to the atmosphere to less than one trillion tonnes (1,000 gigatonnes) to avoid the worst effects of climate change. At the current rate, this threshold will be reached in 30 years.

Action is needed, but who should take that action? It is important not to look at this as just a question for the major country emitters, said Nick. China is by far the largest emitter of CO2 by country, contributing between a quarter and a third of all global emissions, whereas the US tops the chart on a per capita basis. However, if you overlay construction on the country chart, the sector’s four billion tonnes of annual carbon emissions would see it sit just behind the US in terms of contribution to global emissions. Just cement production alone (three billion tonnes) would still come in third, above the total annual emissions of India. As Nick said, “Carbon emissions have a lot to do with construction.”

But what can the industry do about it? “When we talk about construction and climate change there are two main themes. Should our focus be on reducing the impact of the industry, and bringing down our emissions, or should we be thinking about building in resilience and creating an infrastructure that means we can cope with the impact of climate change?” Nick asked.

Opening this question up to discussion, the view of participants was broadly that these are not mutually exclusive and we should do both. As one participant put it, “Change won’t be immediate so we need to respond to the impact of climate change but ultimately we need to reduce our impact.”

Nick closed this section of the forum by highlighting the difference between technical challenges and adaptive challenges. “It seems to me that we can answer the technical problem of what we need to do to reduce emissions and increase resilience, but is this mistaking technical problems for adaptive challenges? Technical problems are complicated but doable, but adaptive challenges, when people are involved, working together and making decisions – that’s where things get really messy.”

GIRI’s approach can be a template for how the industry can address the ‘adaptive challenge’ of achieving the cultural and behavioural changes required to drastically cut emissions. A key focus of GIRI’s work is identifying root causes to problems and examining the cultures and decision-making contexts that underlie certain behaviours. In keeping with this focus, the forum went on to ask why climate change is so difficult to respond to, using the cognitive bias codex to identify behaviours and their root causes that get in the way of more meaningful action on climate change. You can watch the discussion on the GIRI Youtube channel.

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