Chartered Institute of Building Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Building

Opinion

Covid recovery is construction’s green opportunity

21 July 2020 | By Mathew Riley, Ramboll
Mathew Riley, managing director, Ramboll
Mathew Riley, managing director, Ramboll

The Chancellor’s £3bn funding package for ‘green jobs’ can accelerate the industry’s shift towards carbon neutrality, says Ramboll’s Mathew Riley

There is little doubt about the wide-ranging and long-lasting impact of covid-19 on the world, not least the UK. With almost all sectors drawing to a halt throughout the spring, much of the government’s focus, as we ease our way out of lockdown, is on getting the economy back on track.

With industry, investors and the public calling for sustainability strategies to be accelerated, we are now faced with a once in a generation opportunity to deliver a green recovery from the covid-19 crisis.

The UK is already a leading nation in terms of environmental policy. As the first G7 nation to introduce a target for net-zero carbon emissions, and one of the few major countries to not cease enforcing environmental legislation throughout the duration of the crisis, it is already setting a sustainability standard for other leading nations. The Chancellor’s pledge for a £3bn funding package for ‘green jobs’ in the recent summer statement is a welcome measure, and the focus on retrofitting existing public building stock and social housing to become energy efficient is undoubtedly a much-needed step towards achieving the UK’s net zero carbon goals.

Ensuring the energy efficiency of existing building stock is a vital pillar in decarbonisation strategies, and there are a range of good reasons behind the government’s decision to prioritise it. Not only will making existing houses and buildings ‘greener’ create more jobs through a number of separate projects, but it will also lower the amount of primary energy generation needed. What’s more, thermal energy efficiency will allow building heating systems to operate at lower temperature, allowing generators, such as heat pumps, to perform more efficiently.

Prioritise carbon neutrality

But this is just a starting point. For the construction sector to become truly sustainable, more needs to be done. The support packages for greening up public buildings and homes will incentivise a shift towards sustainability, but the government needs to set out clear conditions to ensure full commitment across all infrastructure projects.

Carbon neutrality needs to be a priority if we are to meet net zero carbon targets, and projects, both in the public and private sector, will require a clear definition of the necessary green measures they have to abide by; and if they do not meet this criteria, planning approval should not be given.

Decarbonisation requires a collaborative approach across industries and changing deep-rooted mindsets. Fears of increased costs will require further support schemes and funding. Now is the time for the UK to step out of its comfort zone and back further low or no carbon technologies that can drive the green revolution forwards.

The construction sector already has the talent and thinking to innovate using a vast range of digital techniques and solutions, but it needs clear direction over how to drive forwards the drastic action needed. The net-zero carbon target of 2050 may seem to be in the distant future, but unless we implement low carbon requirements and solutions immediately, it may be more difficult to achieve than originally anticipated.  

Mathew Riley is managing director of Ramboll.