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The Mission is Decarbonising Construction: is the industry ready?

October 2021
Michael Salau, David Murphy, Jade Archer and Felicity Hird

The National Engineering Policy Centre (“NECP”), which includes the Institution of Engineering & Technology (IET) and is led by the Royal Academy of Engineering, connects policy makers with critical engineering expertise to inform and respond to policy issues of national importance. The NECP advises the Government to help address the long-term global threat posed by climate change and support its goal of reaching Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

On 23 June 2020 the NECP convened a workshop focusing on the transformational changes needed to achieve a low carbon-built environment. The aim was to identify the principal areas for change referred to as “Missions”. Following this, on the 24 September 2020, the NECP issued a report on Decarbonising the Construction Industry (“the Report”). The Report uses four “Missions” to set out recommendations aimed at decarbonising the industry through overhauling the construction and engineering industry’s approach to carbon emissions. Within the “Missions” the Report recommends actions for key stakeholders, i.e. those within the industry, and actions for the Government.

The UK is targeting an emissions reduction of 68% by 2030 and 78% by 2035. The NEPC are of the view that the construction and engineering industry will be vital to achieving such targets and that they will not be met if action is not taken immediately, at pace and on a large scale. The Report’s “Missions” are accompanied by Annex C which sets out the actions that need to be taken now (in 2021), next (by 2025) and in the future (beyond 2025). In this article we present a breakdown of each “Mission” and explore the potential impact of the proposed changes on the industry.

“Mission” One – Product Outcomes

“Mission” One recommends a wholesale overhaul of the culture within the construction and engineering industry as the Report describes the current operation as resource hungry and wasteful. The regular project focus on financial outcomes and tight profit margins leaves little scope for the innovation needed to achieve the Net Zero transformation target of 2050. For the decarbonisation of the construction and engineering industry to take place, the goals, objectives and culture within the industry must be changed. The industry’s focus needs to move towards a holistic approach which fosters creativity and innovation in order to reach Net Zero.

Moving forward, the Report recommends that every decision made during the life of a construction project should be underpinned by a new objective of decarbonising the industry.  It is argued that industry professionals need to demonstrate how a detailed consideration of the Net Zero target has run through the project, from the earliest stages of planning, through to after practical completion.

The Report notes that for a culture shift to occur, changes need to be made in relation to the education of industry professionals. Continuing professional development opportunities should be provided by companies and taken up by engineers, architects, and contractors to enable continued upskilling in relation to reducing carbon emissions. For contractors, this may take the form of logistics training on material transport emissions, whereas architects may receive training on carbon-friendly alternative materials such as low-carbon glass or recycled steel.

Industry professionals are also encouraged to play a greater role in increasing public awareness of carbon emissions throughout infrastructure lifecycles. The Report places importance upon professionals such as engineers and architects, where possible, informing the public of the changes needed to mitigate the effects of climate change when carrying out their professional role. It is stated that meaningful community engagement, co-design and co-creation can improve social outcomes and reduce carbon impact.

“Mission” Two – Design and Specification

As it is often the case that carbon is ‘locked in’ during the design phase, this early part of the project is deemed of high importance by the NECP.

The Report states that to decarbonise at the design and specification stage will involve an interrogation of the carbon emissions produced by different materials. As an example, steel and cement have been heavily used in the industry, but both have a high carbon emission and therefore a detrimental effect in efforts to reach Net Zero.

Architects and those in design roles should now consider alternative materials when creating preliminary designs. The NEPC argue that there is no one new material which will provide a ‘silver bullet’, but instead a whole range of novel materials, such as Portland cement free concrete, which may provide the answer. Architects should now be required to be creative and show innovation with the use of these novel materials.

To analyse the carbon emissions of different materials, the Report asks the government to create a certification process by which all materials used in the construction process receive accreditation based upon their carbon emissions. The objective is to bring transparency on carbon performance and incentivise the sector to buy low carbon materials.

The Report also calls for the design life of a building to be brought heavily into focus during the design and specification stage. Carbon savings can be made where buildings are designed to be robust, adaptable and future-proof as they can be repurposed several times during their life. Buildings are more likely to reach their life expectancy if they can be repurposed, therefore buildings should be designed with that flexibility in mind.

“Mission” Three – Reuse

The headline section of the Report is the NEPC’s recommendations on building reuse as they seek to redefine standard practice for material use.

Rather than considering demolition and rebuild which is often viewed as the norm, the Report calls for reuse of existing buildings and materials to become typical practice. Using new materials should become a last resort and justification should be required by industry professionals when making the decision not to reuse existing materials. The Report argues that currently the construction and engineering industry operates under a linear economy characterised by the take, make, and throw away model but the industry should now move towards a circular economy which prioritises minimising extraction and reusing waste. The focus on the reuse of existing buildings and materials will require all professionals to cease the long-standing perception that building more equates to building success. Instead, it is said that success should be redefined in line with the updated goals of the industry put forward by the Report.

It is stated that the effect of this recommendation would be a large reduction in demolition, which in turn will carry public health benefits as hazardous substances released during demolition can cause immunological and developmental impairments. Re-activating redundant buildings will also have a positive community aspect as dilapidated parts of an area may be brought back to life.

At the outset of a project, construction professionals should therefore consider viable existing buildings in the area before creating new structures. This recommendation will be gladly received by the many industry professionals who joined the Architects Journals’ ‘RetroFirst’ campaign to prioritise retrofit over demolition. This recommendation therefore necessitates a perspective change throughout the industry to reuse what was once presumed as waste.

“Mission Four” – Changes to Procurement

The final “Mission” in the Report calls for the Government, as a big industry client, to change their approach to procurement to reflect whole life carbon performance. A readjustment of the procurement process should enable the Government to amend their demands on the construction and engineering industry on the placing of a successful tender. The Report encourages inspiration to be taken from the energy sector, where the National Grid requires its supply chain to explain the carbon intensity of their materials and processes, which is priced into the bidding structure so that selection is based on carbon performance, rather than purely on price. Should the Government follow suit with their public construction contracts, successful tenders will need to include a greater level of detail as to the carbon efficiency of their proposal.


As it is still the case that the construction, operation and maintenance of the built environment accounts for 45% of total UK carbon emissions, the Report’s goal is admirable and it is clear that the construction and engineering industry can come together to make a significant difference to achieving the UK’s Net Zero target. The Report provides some practical recommendations which will enable businesses within the industry to take significant steps, should they not already be doing so, to decarbonise their projects. As an increasing emphasis will be placed on this goal in the near future, which will most likely require businesses to show employers and stakeholders their decarbonisation credentials, the question remains: is your business ready to adapt to the changes required and, if not, how can changes be made?

Please find the link to the report here. 

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