Cultural change is needed to achieve net zero

21 Dec 21

Last month’s focus on climate action in Glasgow shone the spotlight on the role that construction needs to play in reaching net zero. For the first time the built environment received a dedicated day of activity at COP26 – the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties – in recognition of the industry’s pivotal role. 

Even before the conference started, clients, councils and other stakeholders were looking to achieve ambitious net zero targets across everything they deliver. That means making some major changes to the way things are often done now, and quickly. There are some fantastic projects out there where ambitious sustainability targets have been met or exceeded. But this is the exception not the norm and that needs to change.

While many parts of construction have responded positively to COP, they will soon need to show that they are putting their policies into practice. The Treasury has announced that financial institutions and companies with shares listed on the London Stock Exchange must come up with net zero transition plans, including how they will achieve them, by 2023. And it’s unlikely to stop there. Contractors looking to secure investment, win new work, or sustain existing frameworks will need to demonstrate their alignment with these efforts.

Such plans are highly complex, especially as they rely on other industries also reducing their carbon footprint, particularly energy, plant and logistics.  

These are areas where our industry can influence and adopt new technologies, but not entirely drive the agenda. What we can do, right now, to contribute to achieving net zero, is to deal with one aspect of carbon and waste that is entirely within our gift - that which is caused by error. 

Do you really know your carbon footprint?

Our research estimates the cost of avoidable error in the construction process at 21% of project value – around £21 billion per year in the UK. That waste could be eliminated if we worked to get it right the first time. It is often assumed at the outset that we will get it wrong, and an allowance is sometimes made in advance to take that waste into account. As a result, we are making it even harder to meet tough net zero targets.  

Even worse, by not understanding or accounting for error at this level, we would argue that construction businesses simply cannot get a firm handle on their carbon impact. How can you commit to a carefully considered decarbonisation or waste reduction programme if you’re not acknowledging or dealing with error on this scale?

As an industry, we need to wean ourselves off a culture of waste and focus on error being unlikely rather than likely in our delivery. A lowest cost procurement culture also means we often buy process errors, and hence waste, by choosing the cheapest option. We need to engage leadership and change attitudes at every level of the supply chain, from inception to completion. 

All construction industry professionals have a part to play: clients, consultants, architects and planners as well as contractors. GIRI research identified that the top ten root causes of error include late design changes, poorly coordinated and communicated design information and poor interfaces between management and design. This is in addition to poor culture in relation to quality, inadequate supervision and excessive financial and time pressures.  

A sense of renewed urgency

At GIRI, we’ve been championing efforts to reduce error since 2015 – working to bring this conversation into the open. During that time many of our members have been shaping robust decarbonisation plans, but as the scale of the climate crisis has become better understood it has become a board-level issue that is now starting to cut through.  

The fundamental link between these two journeys - our mandate to reduce error on one hand, and the climate agenda on the other – is about productivity. If you can measure and know your impact, you can reduce waste.   

As well as being good practice from a sustainability perspective, that is good business too.


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