Laying the foundations

Darren White discusses some of the sustainability issues facing the construction sector

Construction is a major contributor to the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. According to the International Energy Agency report Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction (bit.ly/2PaVx12), the sector accounted for 36% of final energy use in 2018, 11% of which resulted from the manufacture of building materials such as steel, cement and glass. However, construction also has a vital role to play in delivering the infrastructure needed to support a zero-carbon economy, whether that‘s clean energy networks, low-carbon mass transit systems or zero-carbon housing.

While working to reduce energy use and emissions, the sector must also take strides to embed sustainability at all levels, as well as addressing workforce shortages.

Shaking up the workforce

In February, the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank released research on the construction skills required to deliver net zero, Skills for a green recovery: A call to action for the UK construction industry (bit.ly/3tGIYK4). It was endorsed by industry individuals and organisations such as Tideway and the Construction Leadership Council. They concluded that the industry needs radical change to achieve net zero by 2050.

The industry has, in general, an ageing workforce. The study shows that up to 750,000 UK construction workers will be retired or on the verge of retirement in the next 15 years – and that’s without considering the impact of Brexit.

Government investment and policy is needed to tackle this skills gap, but it must start at company level. Traditionally, the industry has been ‘male, pale and stale’, and needs to be more appealing to a diverse population. Organisations such as Women into Construction are helping, but more needs to be done.Greater diversity is also needed in sustainability roles, currently dominated by white, middle-class, degree-educated individuals. The new apprenticeship standard for environmental practitioners being adopted by various colleges and universities will hopefully change this.

From top to bottom

Sustainability needs to be championed at all levels, but the role and seniority of the sustainability professionals varies throughout the industry. This is not the case in other sectors, such as retail or finance, which have started to appoint chief sustainability officers on their boards. It’s encouraging to see several leading construction companies appoint directors of sustainability, but this seniority is often overlooked elsewhere.

These roles have evolved from sole environmental professionals to teams of specialists reporting to boards on key strategic environmental, social and governance issues. This approach is further strengthened if sustainability performance is directly linked to financing. This was the case during the construction of the Thames Tideway Tunnel, whereby £1.7bn of debt was raised through issuance of green bonds and sustainability-linked revolving credit facilities.

Firms must regularly assess their climate impact, and the governance and risk management that underpins it. Only a handful of infrastructure organisations have carried out such assessments; this needs to become the norm. COVID-19 has shown how we can mobilise resources to combat a major threat, and we need to treat climate change in the same way.

The role of sustainability must be championed at the highest levels if our industry is to take serious action, and steps taken to make the sector more appealing. Without green skills at all levels, it will not be possible to ‘build back better’.

Darren White, FIEMA is a freelance environmental, social and governance strategy consultant.

Image Credit | Shutterstock
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