Collaboration and dialogue are the keys to decarbonising the built environment

Collaboration and dialogue are the keys to decarbonising the built environment

To achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, the construction industry has to get serious about becoming net zero – but the whole value chain must row in the same direction, says Sergey Belyavskiy

The places we live, the places we work, and the places where we play. The built environment is obviously a very important part of our lives. But the inconvenient truth is that the buildings that bring us security, sanctuary and joy are also contributing to our planet in a negative way.

Buildings account for 39% of energy-related global carbon emissions, with 28% derived from operational carbon and a further 11% related to construction materials, or what is commonly referred to as embodied carbon.

If we want to be successful in meeting the objectives of the Paris Climate Agreement (to become net zero carbon by 2050 to limit global warming to 1.5°c), getting onto that trajectory largely depends on the progress made by the building and construction industry.

The World Green Building Council has set some lofty goals in this respect, articulated within its ‘Bringing Embodied Carbon Upfront’ report. By 2030, it wants all new buildings, infrastructure and renovations to reduce embodied carbon by at least 40% and achieve net zero emissions operationally. By 2050, the Council wants to see all new projects achieve net zero in both embodied carbon and operational emissions.

But to be successful we have to overcome some key challenges. The most important, in my mind, is addressing the fragmented nature of the construction industry. There are different players – from engineers and architects, to materials providers and developers – with different interests.

Getting the whole value chain to work collaboratively and communicate clearly about sustainability objectives will be crucial to our chances. Indeed, one of the key goals referenced by the World Green Building Council in the pursuit of its net zero objective is a ‘radical whole value chain collaboration’ that can accelerate the reduction of embodied carbon and ‘demonstrate how full decarbonisation can be achieved by working together’.

However, we have to take a nuanced approach and find an optimal balance between embodied carbon and reductions we can make in operational carbon. For example, you can put a lot of insulation into a building to make it more energy efficient and reduce operational emissions as a consequence, but the installation increases the proportion of embodied carbon. 

Finding a carbon payback point as early as possible is the key, but other actors in the value chain must be on board, which can be extremely complicated. Developers are key stakeholders and bare much of the financial consequences of the decisions made and they rely on the guidance of their architects. In turn, architects are dependent on material and solution providers, like Dow, who fabricate, manufacture and install components of building.

This complexity makes genuine dialogue and collaboration an important part of the process of finding the best solution. Although part of Dow’s role in decarbonising the built environment is technical and relates to producing low-carbon products, we’ve made it our responsibility to promote collaboration, and bring all stakeholders along the value chain together to work towards the ultimate ambition of producing carbon neutral buildings. 

Shared vision and values

Dow’s Carbon Partnership with the International Olympic Committee, in which we balance the owned emissions of the IOC through investments in sustainable technology and low-carbon innovation, has enabled us to link up with leading organisations in the built environment (and other industries) who share our visions and values.

We’ll be joined by some of these partners during our upcoming webinar, ‘Reimagining the built environment for a low-carbon economy’, to discuss how we’re working together to reduce the carbon footprint of the construction industry.

Finding the right partners is fundamental to this process. To get every element of the value chain rowing in the right direction, it’s critical that everyone has the will to work towards the greater good, even if it’s not the easy way to do things.

In recent weeks, Dow has unveiled a concrete intention to become carbon neutral by 2050. But we realise that we have to make significant gains in the meantime. That’s why Dow put an interim 2030 target of reducing our net annual carbon emissions by five million metric tonnes compared with our 2020 baseline.

And we’ll do this through three main areas: 

– Advancing the efficiency of our manufacturing operations 

– Ensuring that our products are more sustainable than alternatives

– And collaborating with external stakeholders to incentivise low-carbon innovation

It’s important that those external stakeholders have similar commitments to us. Swire Properties, who will join us on our upcoming webinar, is among the most sustainable property developers in the world. In fact, it’s mission is to become the “leading sustainable development performer” in its industry by 2030.

The US Green Building Council – another one of our partners joining us on 29 July – is at the forefront of transforming buildings into sustainable, prosperous and healthy places for us to work and play through certification and education.

We’ll explore the different approaches adopted by Dow, Swire Properties and USGBC, and discuss how we work together to make the built environment less carbon intensive and more sustainable, during our next webinar.

Join Pinar Cetin (Dow Consumer Solutions), Patrick Ho (Swire Properties), Jing Wang (USGBC) and myself to discover:

– Why we need to rethink our construction and operations processes in the context of climate change

– What an effective multi-stakeholder approach looks like

– How Dow and the International Olympic Committee’s Carbon Partnership is reducing the carbon impact of built environment projects

We look forward to sharing our experiences and learning together on 29 July.

Register for the webinar here.

Sergey Belyavskiy is the technology and sustainability leader of Dow Olympic & Sports Solutions

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