Mobile Crane At Construction Site
Without strict carbon targets, real estate has few incentives to cut construction emissions and invest in new materials

Regulate embodied carbon or miss net zero targets, auditor warns

The built environment has made no progress in reducing emissions related to construction, according to a “hard-hitting” Environmental Audit Committee report calling for mandatory whole-life carbon assessments.

While the construction industry “is willing and able” to undertake carbon assessments that include both operational and embodied emissions, government policy has focused solely on regulating the former. This has left the industry with few incentives to cut emissions.

Though the report focuses on UK government policy, its conclusions are applicable to real estate more widely.

Mandatory whole-life assessments and emissions targets would encourage retrofits, recycling materials such as cement and investment in low-carbon alternatives, according to EAC.

“If the UK continues to drag its feet on embodied carbon, it will not meet net zero or its carbon budgets,” the EAC wrote.

“To address these issues, the single most significant policy the government could introduce is a mandatory requirement to undertake whole-life carbon assessments for buildings.”

The report called for the government to set “progressively ratcheting” carbon targets for buildings and for new requirements within building regulations and planning policy.

Other recommendations included reforming VAT policy, which currently taxes retrofit work at a higher rate than new build work.

More emissions than flying and shipping

The UK would have to cut its carbon emissions by more than half in the next decade if the country is to hit net zero by 2050, according to the UK Green Building Council.

The organisation welcomed the report, adding that national regulation will be necessary for progress.

Simon McWhirter, director of communications, policy and places, at UKGBC, said: “Today’s hard-hitting report from the Environmental Audit Committee should act as a wake-up call to the government.

“Embodied carbon emissions from the construction and refurbishment and demolition of buildings each year total more than aviation and shipping industries combined, yet the government has no policies to measure and regulate this.”

International policies

The report drew on several international examples of regulation, including:

  • The Netherlands: The Building Decree 2012 requires new homes and offices larger than 100 sq m to have whole-life carbon calculations and carbon mitigation cost estimates
  • France: The RE2020 requires whole-life carbon calculations for all new housing projects, emphasising the use of wood in construction. The scheme started on a voluntary basis in 2016 and became mandatory this year
  • California: The Buy Clean California Act, which applies to infrastructure projects and public buildings, sets carbon intensity limits on certain materials

Inaction would risk the UK falling behind other European countries, the report warned.

“At last, recognition that whole life cycle carbon assessments are the future,” said Tom Scott, founding director of Construction Carbon, which provided written evidence to the report.

“We really welcome the recognition that retrofit and reuse of existing buildings should be prioritised, and would welcome any measure that would encourage this, including VAT discrepancies being addressed.”

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