What is carbon offsetting?

While we weren’t able to attend UK Construction Week ourselves this year, we wanted to provide our reflections on some of the sessions, as part of a mini-series on the issues the industry is talking about. The theme for 2020 was “Roadmap to Recovery”. It featured workshops and seminars on how the AEC industry can continue to recover from the pandemic, as well as a look at how to adapt to the new normal. The pandemic has changed the workplace for every sector. Construction was at the forefront of this learning to adapt to social distancing and new ways of working, but there is still much to do to adapt and thrive in a reshaped economy.

Reviewing the most important takeaways, we explore the practical steps your organisation can take to neutralise the effect of carbon emissions.

What is carbon offsetting and how does it work?

Carbon offsetting is a mechanism to financially support carbon reduction projects around the world. It’s done to compensate for the emissions that you’ve already caused, so it balances out somewhere else in the world.

A carbon offset allows individuals and companies to reduce carbon emissions through buying carbon credits in carbon reduction projects. These projects may be through:

  • Reforestation, e.g. planting new trees
  • Avoided deforestation, REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation)
  • Enhancement and sustainable management of forestry, REDD+
  • Renewables, such as solar PV and wind turbines
  • The capture of landfill gas or methane
  • Clean water access

Each carbon credit is equivalent to a carbon reduction of 1 tonne of CO2.

Should I focus on reducing emissions before offsetting?

The construction industry must shift to a more sustainable model for the benefit of the environment and its long-term endurance. Considering the global extent of construction and urbanisation today, and taking into account the pace at which the planet is being further developed, it is even more important that whatever is built adheres to a less wasteful and more environmentally friendly model.

In the UK

  • 61% of all waste produced comes from the construction and demolition of buildings.
  • The construction industry accounts for approximately 55% of the total annual material consumption
  • 13% of products delivered new to construction sites are sent directly to landfill without ever being used. It produces three times more waste than all UK households combined.
  • The construction and operation of buildings account for 50% of total CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) emissions.
  • The construction industry is responsible for 30% of annual water usage.

We need to be doing all we can by reducing our emissions and offsetting any that we have already made.

How to offset carbon throughout the build process

Incorporate drone data capture and digital twins to increase efficiency during the design and construction phases

Digital twins or site representation, as well as remote site management software, provides the ability to keep a detailed depiction of a project’s progress. Given the size of many project areas and the rapid development of construction sites, it can take teams months to digitise a large site manually, by which point the data goes out of date. As a result, this data is unreliable for decision-makers.

Capturing site data using a drone allows teams to speed up the data capture process by days and in many cases even months. Data can be captured regularly too, to avoid data being outdated.

Working with a digital twin during a project’s design phase enables planners to avoid design clashes and re-builds. Thus providing a means for construction’s environmental impact to be reduced.

Data captured via drone and hosted in Sensat’s visualisation platform

Think about modular construction

Modular construction is the manufacture and pre-assembly of construction components before they are installed in their permanent on-site location. Once modules are delivered to site – pre-fitted with plumbing, heating, electrics etc – they are carefully assembled into position on-site. Reductions in vehicle transportation and machine usage means that offsite construction uses a lot less energy.

Offsite construction is also up to 50% quicker than traditional methods, allowing companies to deliver projects on time. China has been a good example of what can be done in terms of efficiency; the Mini Sky City in Changsha took just 17 days on-site to assemble. On-site production innovation is on the increase in the UK. MACE’s factory in Stratford is proving that the UK construction industry can incorporate sustainability in all aspects of construction.

Use sustainable materials

Technological innovations are transforming the way physical materials are used in global construction projects. In the renewable energy sector, for instance, 3D printing has led to changes in how wind turbine blades could be developed. Carbon fibre has additionally given developers newer, lighter avenues to explore. 3D printing is just one of the increasing trends towards many alternative and recycled building materials. Among the recycled metals used today for green building purposes, copper and steel are the ones with the best properties.

Elsewhere, studies continue to look into future innovations such as self-healing concrete. Concrete is the world’s most popular building material, however, all concrete eventually cracks, and under some conditions, those cracks can lead to collapse. This self-healing concrete, which was developed in the Netherlands, would have the ability to repair itself using bacteria without the need for human intervention.

The construction industry is taking positive steps in the right direction. It’s clear that there are not only significant long term benefits on the environment with sustainable construction but also to the sector itself.

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