Decarbonizing the Building Materials Sector
The building materials sector plays a significant role in global carbon emissions, making it a crucial area to focus on when tackling climate change. According to the World Green Building Council (WorldGBC), buildings contribute to 39% of carbon emissions related to global energy usage, with 28% attributed to operational emissions, which include the energy required for heating, cooling, and powering buildings, and the remaining 11% arising from materials, and construction processes.
As an effort to tackle embodied energy, WorldGBC initiated breakthrough actions that aimed at two goals. First, it targets to achieve a minimum of 40% reduction in embodied carbon for new buildings, infrastructure and renovations by 2030. Second, all new buildings, infrastructure, and renovations must have net zero embodied carbon emissions, including the existing buildings by 2050.
Decarbonizing this sector has both challenges and opportunities that can shape a sustainable and low-carbon future for the construction industry. One of the major challenges in decarbonizing the building materials sector is the carbon-intensive nature of its production processes. Industries like cement, steel, and glass production emit substantial amounts of GHG, primarily CO2. These emissions are mainly a result of the chemical reactions involved in the production of these materials. Developing alternative production methods that reduce or eliminate carbon emissions while maintaining the necessary performance standards is a significant challenge.
Next is the limited awareness and market demand for low-carbon alternatives. Many construction professionals and consumers are not fully aware of the environmental impact of traditional materials or the availability of greener alternatives. Creating awareness and fostering market demand for sustainable building materials are crucial steps in driving change. The demand from other sectors, particularly the automotive industry, will contribute to the increased availability of low-carbon steel and lead to reduced production costs for low-carbon fuels and carbon capture technologies.
While there are promising low-carbon technologies available for building materials production, scaling them up to an industrial level remains a challenge. Technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS), alternative cement formulations, and sustainable timber production need further research, development, and investment to reach commercial viability and widespread adoption.
Opportunities in Decarbonizing Building Materials
Advancements in material science provide opportunities for developing low-carbon alternatives in the construction industry. Innovative materials like carbon-negative concrete, bio-based composites, and recycled materials are being researched to significantly reduce emissions while maintaining the required properties for construction.
Embracing a circular economy approach, which focuses on designing buildings and products with reuse, recycling, and repurposing in mind, can minimize waste generation and the need for new materials. Additionally, adopting sustainable supply chains that assess the environmental impact of raw material extraction, transportation, and manufacturing processes, along with optimal supply chain management and the use of renewable energy, can effectively reduce the carbon footprint of the building materials sector.
Green building certification programs like LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) promote the utilization of sustainable materials and construction methods. Governments can contribute to decarbonization efforts by implementing policies and regulations that incentivize the adoption of low-carbon building materials and sustainable construction practices.
Decarbonizing the building materials sector is a crucial step in achieving global climate objectives. The sector faces challenges related to carbon-intensive production processes, conventional material demand, limited awareness, and the scaling up of low-carbon technologies. However, there are emerging prospects through advancements in material science, circular economy approaches, sustainable supply chains, and supportive policies. Collaboration among industry stakeholders, policymakers, and researchers is essential in driving the necessary transformation.