The University of Manchester experts have issued a warning, stressing the need for significantly increased attention towards reducing the entire life-cycle CO2 emissions of buildings. This encompasses activities ranging from the creation and transportation of materials to the eventual disposal of old structures. The objective is to markedly diminish the carbon footprint of the construction industry.

Drawing from collaborative research with the University of Melbourne, Judy Too and Obuks Ejohwomu highlight that the building sector stands as the primary contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. This sector alone is accountable for 40% of global emissions, and within the UK, it is responsible for around a quarter of domestic emissions.

They convey in their article, presented through the University’s policy engagement unit, Policy@Manchester, that the present juncture demands urgent worldwide action to combat climate change. They compare the current approach to “building a house on sand.”

Within their discourse, Ms. Too and Dr. Ejohwomu propose three key areas where policymakers can actively intervene to curtail emissions within the building sector.

First, they argue that manufacturers should be mandated to produce Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) for all materials, adding: “This will build the necessary knowledge infrastructure while increasing awareness of the embodied carbon content of building materials.” Acknowledging that the market may not yet be properly prepared to meet the necessary requirements “due to significant gaps in primary data,” they suggest a series of graduated steps including the short-term use of industry-wide EPDs with product-specific EPDs becoming mandatory within two years.

Second, based on their research, the University of Manchester academics believe that end-of-life treatment of materials and buildings is often overlooked. They advocate the update of building code regulations to include considerations for whole-life carbon impacts. Ms Too and Dr Ejohwomu write: “This update will mandate a whole-building Life Cycle Assessment, shifting the focus from prescriptive emission limits to evaluating and optimising the overall performance of the building in terms of its environmental impact.”

Third, they argue for the introduction of “project-level carbon budgets based on predefined boundaries and benchmarks aligned with sectoral carbon limits” with a target time of three to five years. They explain: “These limits establish precise emission targets that building projects must meet, with enforcement mechanisms such as audits and monitoring systems in place to ensure compliance. By implementing such limits, projects are held accountable for their emission levels over the building’s lifecycle, thereby driving carbon reduction within the building sector.”

Summing up how their research can enable the building sector to reduce CO2 emissions, Ms Too and Dr Ejohwomu conclude: “By acting on these recommendations, policymakers can lead a combined effort to balance environmental goals with economic considerations. To not do so and continue to ignore the whole-life emissions of buildings risks locking in unsustainable buildings for decades.”

Built on sand: the need for new environmental standards in the construction industry is available to read on the Policy@Manchester website.