Influencing clients and the supply chain: how is net-zero shaping the industry?

A recent Construction News roundtable, sponsored by BAM, examined how clients, contractors and investors are shaping their approaches to carbon reduction

On the panel

Yetunde Abdul, head of climate action, UK Green Building Council
Martyn Coombes, engineering manager, Southampton Airport
Stephen Elderkin, project director, National Highways
Stacey Flor, managing director, co-head of origination, Wells Fargo
Maria Jarosz, principal environment and social value manager, Network Rail
Nick Lee, development director, CEG
Julia Messenger, sustainability manager, BAM Construct
Neil Pickup, projects director, Ask Development
Neil Wait, head of environmental sciences, HS2

For many, 2021 will be remembered as the year when climate change finally established itself at the forefront of the political agenda, as the need to take drastic action became so demonstrably urgent; barely a week went by without some form of natural disaster that could, at least in part, be attributed to our changing climate.

In the UK, it was also down to the fact that Glasgow played host to the COP26 climate change conference, which saw politicians, businesspeople and activists from across the world descend on the city to exchange ideas and attempt to come to a global consensus on the way forward.

The built environment industry was, unsurprisingly, well represented at the conference. After all, the World Green Building Council estimates that construction and the energy required to operate buildings account for around 40 per cent of global carbon emissions.

Quite simply, the industry has to step up if the world is to have any hope of restricting climate change to 1.5 degrees.

In the wake of COP26 and following July’s CN Decarbonising Construction virtual conference, Construction News – in conjunction with sponsor BAM – convened a digital roundtable discussion to examine the action being taken by companies across the built environment to put their own carbon emissions in order. So, how advanced are the industry’s plans?

BAM Construct sustainability manager Julia Messenger set out her company’s approach. She said that BAM had already signed up to science-based targets that encompass both the company’s own direct emissions and those of its clients, supply chain and suppliers, and added that it is currently working on a comprehensive net-zero carbon strategy, which is to be published this year.

“One of the conversations we have quite a lot with clients is what net-zero means to them,” she said. “Are they just talking about operational buildings? Or are they talking about whole-life carbon as well, so looking at all the materials that would go into those buildings in the first place? There’s a lot there to think about. We can’t just focus on our own emissions. We’ve got to be looking at what we can do to influence our clients, but also how we can influence the supply chain.”

“One of the conversations we have with clients is what net-zero means to them. Are they talking about operational buildings? Or whole-life carbon as well”

Julia Messenger

A similar approach is being taken by Ask Development, according to Neil Pickup, the company’s projects director. “We’ve broken this down into three areas we want to tackle,” he said. “Firstly, we want to redo our corporate policies on this issue. Secondly, it’s about construction, so really making the most of what design can offer as well as inevitably some offsetting because that's the only way you can be as carbon neutral as you possibly can at this moment in time in the context of commercial offices.”

Finally, Pickup added, Ask is looking at the in-use carbon profile of its developments. “It’s really proactive and we’ve successfully started to integrate it into some of our buildings that we’re currently designing,” he said.

HS2 head of environmental sciences Neil Wait agreed, and pointed out it is necessary to take an even longer-term position when it comes to infrastructure rather than buildings. Infrastructure is likely to last for far longer, after all. As a result, when HS2 examines whole-life carbon it is planning for 120 years of operation.

Literacy training

However, Wait emphasised that sustainability can no longer be confined to a single department – rather it has to be led from the very top and permeate every part of an organisation. “The first thing is to get the organisation straight in relation to their carbon management position,” he said. “Carbon management is something that needs to be led from the top – from the leadership, the executive and the CEO. It’s not something that the environment team can just do detached.”

For such an approach to be successful, Wait added, employees across an organisation – old and young, in both senior and junior positions – need to have access to appropriate training. “[You need to] make sure you’ve got carbon-literate staff across all the key organisations – procurement, commercial […] all the teams,” he said.

“We’ve had carbon-literacy training that we developed and we started with the CEO, the board and the managing directors of the joint ventures that are actually building the railway. And then it’s feeding its way through the organisation. I think that’s the most important thing. It needed to be embedded, a bit like how health and safety is embedded across the organisation.”

In terms of influencing contractors and subcontractors, Wait pointed to the first phase of HS2, which is currently live across 200 sites. He said that every organisation working on the project had a “contractual challenge” to cut their carbon footprint by 50 per cent. “That’s from their construction baseline, whether they’re building a tunnel, station or a piece of railway above ground,” he said.

“We don’t specify what they do. We work with them, of course, but the solution is very different [for different projects]. One thing we have learned is the real opportunity that detailed design gives you. Once you get on site, things get a lot harder.”

“We have a moral responsibility and also a need within the business to reduce our carbon down as far as we can go”

Martyn Coombes, Southampton Airport

Network Rail principal environment and social value manager Maria Jarosz added that her organisation takes a similar approach. “One of the things that we’ve had for a long time and was recently updated this year is contract requirements,” she said. “We have some minimum standards for environment and social [contributions] and within that there is a big piece around carbon and energy and asking both our designers and our contractors to look at whole life carbon to do assessments and to look at renewables. It’s an expectation.”

For his part, CEG development director Nick Lee said a big part of the developer’s approach is trying to minimise the energy required to operate the buildings that it delivers and owns. “It's about taking back control of building operations ourselves,” he said. “We now directly employ our FM [facilities management] teams and front of house staff. That gives us a greater level of control about energy consumption within a building.”

He added: “But I think the big challenge that we're focused in on is that 50 per cent of our emissions are from our occupiers. If you look at the assets that we control, we probably have 25,000 people coming across the threshold of the assets on a daily basis. We've been introducing more green leases so that as and when we have lease events we are beginning to work with occupiers about sharing information, sharing occupation trends and how we can focus on the reduction of [energy] consumption within the buildings themselves.”

Moral responsibility

Of course, addressing carbon emissions is more difficult for some organisations than it is for others. Airports are a good example – after all, there is little that owners can do to reduce airlines’ emissions. Martyn Coombes, engineering manager at Southampton Airport, however, said all organisations need to do what they can.

“We’ve been working on this for a little while now,” he said. “We have a moral responsibility and also a need within the business to reduce our carbon down as far as we can go. We’ve been working hard in the background so that we can say the airport itself, at least, is reducing its carbon use as much as we can.” Initiatives to do this, he said, include a hydrogen-driven heat and power plan, as well as a switch to LED lighting. He added that any future construction work would be procured in line with low-carbon principles.

National Highways director of environmental sustainability Stephen Elderkin faces similar issues. He pointed out that surface transport accounts for 28 per cent of carbon emissions in the UK and that a move away from the internal combustion engine is essential if climate targets are to be met. Most of the heavy lifting when it comes to reducing the use of private vehicles and the uptake of electric cars is down to central government, he said, but there are still things that National Highways could do.

“It’s about putting your own house in order,” Elderkin said. “We will plant three million trees. We will have ultra-low emission vehicles and we’re taking out contracts for electric-vehicle hire. We’re also going to promote electric-vehicle use privately for our for our staff, so there is a lot going on there. Something like three quarters of our electricity use is from lighting the road network, so we have a big program to switch that over to LED lighting.”

Whole-life issues

Perhaps most importantly for the industry, it appears that pressure is building from financiers to do things in a more sustainable manner. The roundtable heard that financial institutions are now seeing the carbon profile of a development as a key consideration when deciding whether to extend a loan or not – something that has changed dramatically within a few short years.

So it would appear that investors, developers and contractors are all facing in the right direction. However, there was also broad agreement that addressing whole-life carbon – and in particular the embodied carbon in materials – remains highly challenging. On that point, Yetunde Abdul, head of climate action at the UK Green Building Council, urged panellists to study her organisation’s recently published Whole Life Carbon Roadmap for the Built Environment.

“It’s a piece of work that we’ve been working on for over 12 months focused on really trying to plug some of the gaps there to support all the work that you're all doing in terms of performance targets but also that embodied carbon piece,” she said. “There’s a range of stakeholder action plans for different sectors. It sets out specific actions to support that drive toward net zero, focusing on embodied carbon and whole-life carbon.”

However, Abdul also concluded that the most important thing that all organisations in the industry could do was to come together and pool their collective knowledge and experiences. “We’re keen to get everybody speaking and on the same page, looking at how to consistently consider impacts and also measure them as well,” she said.

She said she and her colleagues have been heartened by the industry's commitment to committing to net-zero so far. “There’s a lot of encouragement from our from our point of view," she said.

Given the urgency of the action needed on carbon, there is no time to waste.

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