China can ‘demonstrate ethical decarbonisation’ in construction sector, which requires massive emissions cuts, UN and Yale report says

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The buildings and construction sector – “the most polluting and toughest to decarbonise” industry – must build and consume less, shift to ethical and sustainable bio-based building materials, and decarbonise conventional materials that cannot be replaced, to cut emissions, according to a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Yale Center for Ecosystems and Architecture.

The industry was responsible for 37 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions in 2021, and rapid urbanisation worldwide has continued to drive up pollution, with the addition of buildings equivalent to the size of Paris every five days and floor space estimated to double by 2060, according to the report published on Tuesday.

“The built environment sector is one of the largest contributors to climate change … yet the built environment has received only a small fraction of climate-focused funding for research and development compared to other sectors,” the report said.

Although investment in the energy efficiency of building operations increased 16 per cent among Group of Seven countries in 2021, such commitments “pale in comparison” to what is required to decarbonise the built environment, it added.

“Net zero in the building and construction sector is achievable by 2050, as long as governments put in place the right policy, incentives and regulation to bring a shift in industry action,” said Sheila Aggarwal-Khan, director of UNEP’s Industry and Economy Division.

Decarbonising the sector requires cooperation across multiple stakeholders throughout the building life cycle to bring down emissions associated with the construction and deconstruction of buildings, and those generated through the function and maintenance of these buildings, the report said.

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Building less and repurposing existing structures could help generate 50 to 75 per cent fewer emissions than new construction, the report said. The report also suggested construction with less materials, and with materials that have a lower carbon footprint and facilitate reuse and recycling.


Switching to ethically and sustainably sourced renewable bio-based building materials, including timber, bamboo and biomass, could lead to compounded emissions savings in many regions of up to 40 per cent in the sector by 2050, it added.

For conventional materials that cannot be replaced, especially concrete, steel and aluminium, which together are responsible for 23 per cent of overall global emissions currently, priority should be placed on powering production with renewable energy sources, increasing the use of reusable and recycled materials, and scaling innovative technologies, according to the report.

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Decarbonising the construction sector also requires changing the common perception of concrete and steel as modern materials of choice, it said.

“Until recently, most buildings were constructed using locally sourced earth, stone, timber and bamboo,” said Aggarwal-Khan. “Yet modern materials such as concrete and steel often give only the illusion of durability, usually ending up in landfills and contributing to the growing climate crisis.”

The share of concrete in global construction needs to be reduced by half between 2020 and 2060, the report said.

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China, the world’s largest carbon emitter and producer of construction materials, has a huge role to play in decarbonising the global construction sector, the report’s authors said.


Since the mid-2000s, China has built the world’s largest in-use cement stocks, with 80 per cent going towards the construction of buildings and the rest towards infrastructure to meet the needs of an expanding middle class, according to the report.

The country has promised to peak carbon emissions by the end of this decade to reach net-zero emissions by 2060. It has ordered the steel, cement and aluminium sectors to make green updates and is looking to include the building materials and steel sectors in its national carbon trading market, the world’s largest carbon market by covered emissions.


“China, as the largest global emitter in the real estate development sector, has a huge opportunity to demonstrate ethical decarbonisation,” said Anna Dyson, a lead author of the report and professor at the Yale School of Architecture.

“We need to make a relationship with China and hopefully coordinate the certification between fair labour practices and ethical decarbonisation. This is a tremendous opportunity that could be offered to the sector.”


The news is published by EMEA Tribune & SCMP210520-twitter-verified-cs-70cdee.jpg (1500×750)

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