COP26 is wake-up call for construction industry - Mark Macaulay

Scotland's target of reaching net zero was put under the spotlight at COP26 and the construction industry is well aware it has a vital role to play.

Mark Macaulay is a Partner, Dentons
Mark Macaulay is a Partner, Dentons

Construction faces its own specific challenges in the drive to net zero in Scotland by 2045, (2050 across the rest of the UK). We see three main areas where the industry can help: the transition to carbon-efficient methods of construction and materials; decarbonising the UK's heat supply; and adapting buildings.

Firstly, the industry must find ways to cut carbon emissions in construction materials and the way in which it builds. Techniques for manufacturing common materials, including steel and concrete, currently produce high levels of carbon emissions.

Secondly, decarbonising heat requires a radical shift to lower carbon forms of energy. The UK Government has put forward several proposals to encourage this, including its Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution that sees a massive scaling-up of the heat pump sector. Westminster's Build Back Better plan puts the case for a ‘thriving low carbon hydrogen sector’ to create a ‘cleaner, greener energy system’. The UK Hydrogen Strategy sets a goal for low carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030.

Most recently, the UK government published its Heat and Buildings Strategy setting out how the UK will decarbonise homes, and commercial, industrial and public sector buildings.

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The third challenge is how to design new buildings and retrofit existing buildings to maximise their carbon efficiency. Many in the construction industry will find this demanding. For some, acknowledging that climate change is here, and needs to be addressed now, requires a change of mindset. Businesses need to invest time and money into researching new methods of construction, technology, carbon-efficient materials and ways of working and collaborating with supply chains.

The UK and Scottish governments must also implement policies and funding strategies to support the industry both in reducing carbon emissions across the supply chain and in enabling the wholesale retrofitting of existing properties. The Scottish Government outlined its contribution to preventing warming of more than 1.5 degrees as part of 100 days to COP26. Industry bodies are already playing their part, such as the Scottish Construction Leadership Forum with its Recovery Plan.

Companies that don’t adapt their business practices will come under increasing pressure from customers and face damaging their reputation and commercial interests. We are guiding clients through the framework of international agreements and treaties and domestic legislation and regulation that governs climate change.

Adapting early to change can enable the development of new supply chain relationships, more rapid scaling-up of new products and processes, long-term cost reduction, an enhanced reputation and an ability to win work and attract the best staff.

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Industry leaders should also be aware of the major role younger employees can play. Businesses without a robust net zero policy may find it hard to attract young talent. Younger generations' desire for change is strong and their energy and perspective could produce new ideas and solutions.

COP26 has hopefully given the construction industry a wake-up call to increase its efforts to reach net zero. This will benefit the industry, its supply chain, the wider economy and society as a whole. It is time for the construction industry to take action to take on board the COP discussions and recommendations of the Glasgow Climate Pact.

Mark Macaulay is a Partner, Dentons

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