Why sustainable construction needs concrete

By Andy Brown24 June 2021

With governments around the world striving for a carbon neutral future concrete can play a key role, says Dr Andrew Minson, concrete and sustainable construction director, GCCA

Dr Andrew Minson, concrete and sustainable construction director, GCCA

The world is facing a race against time to turn the tide in the battle against climate change. Governments and industries everywhere are searching for ways to reduce their impact on the environment as they strive for a carbon-neutral future.

One of the industries at the forefront of driving change in the way it operates is cement and concrete. Concrete has – and will – continue to be vital to the growth and connectedness of communities all over the world, facilitating the construction of key infrastructure such as schools and hospitals, roads and tunnels, houses and offices.

Sustainable building material 

As well as being strong and versatile, concrete has a number of properties that make it invaluable as a sustainable building material. Its recyclability, reusability, ability to recarbonate and act as a carbon sink as well as fire, rot and water resistance and its ability to absorb and re-radiate heat, means that it enables companies to deliver sustainable construction.

As the world’s most used material after water, concrete is essential to modern life. Its strength and durability set it apart from other materials when it comes to safety and lifespan, while making it resilient to most forms of disaster. Its versatility also provides engineers with enormous scope to meet and optimise application requirements in the most sustainable manner.

The industry has already cut its emissions proportionally by around a fifth since 1990, before its recent commitment to achieve carbon neutral concrete by 2050 in line with global climate goals.

The other related challenge our world faces after climate change is the human impact on the natural world and biodiversity. The needs of growing populations, including demand for food and other requirements, adds significant pressure on land use. How we use land to support the construction of our built environment, provide public amenities and support biodiversity is crucial.

The land space needed for the production of concrete is a fraction of what is needed to produce alternative materials such as timber; our industry has a proud record of minimising its impact on habitats and protecting biodiversity. GCCA members recently committed to a ‘net-positive’ impact on the natural world.

Concrete is also available locally, which means that the emissions and energy used in its supply chain are significantly lower than for materials that are moved widely across the globe.

No magic bullet for sustainability 

As the construction industry strives to reduce its carbon footprint, it can be easy to be swept away by a wave of promise for solutions that seem to offer a magic bullet for cutting emissions. It’s vital that we fairly assess the many benefits of using concrete in construction in comparison with other materials like timber, which are sometimes presented as an ideal ‘green’ substitution. This perception often does not take into account factors such as full carbon accounting, land use, end of life issues, chemical treatments and habitat impact.

Cutting concrete emissions is a key goal of the GCCA

Whilst there is a role for all building materials, it’s imperative that they are assessed accurately against alternative materials. Blanket material policies can in fact cause more harm, through sub-optimal construction in terms of durability and resilience, and unaccounted environmental and biodiversity impact.

Already, circular economy principles – incorporating the use of alternative fuels such as waste tyres and municipal waste in cement kilns, and by-products from other industries and recycled materials into concrete production – are transforming the way we operate and driving us toward a more sustainable construction model. Promising carbon capture projects are also underway globally that can remove emissions.

To accelerate innovation in the sector, the GCCA recently announced the launch of Open Challenge, a global initiative to identify and support start-ups using innovation to help the industry reach its goal of becoming carbon-free by 2050.

Every material has a role to play in the future of sustainable construction. However, fair assessment policies are essential to ensure that the most appropriate materials are picked for each project, taking into account important factors such as the need for whole life sustainability, biodiversity, land-use, carbon emissions, safety and durability.

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