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BLOG: Are we there yet? Counting down to the green revolution

By Louise Townsend, director of social value and sustainability at Morgan Sindall Construction

The last minute scramble to bring key countries into a deal on greenhouse gas emissions ahead of COP26 shows us, for the umpteenth time, just how difficult it is to make a difference globally on climate change. The G20 countries are responsible for about 80% of global emissions, with the US, India, and China amongst those reliant on coal. Securing an agreement that will significantly reduce emissions is a huge challenge.

The change from the Trump to Biden administration across the Atlantic has at least reengaged the world’s largest economy in the process and, in our own way, the UK has also upped its game in the last 12 months. We are approaching the first anniversary of the launch of the Government’s 10-Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution and there is now a framework policy makers and UK Plc can work with. By identifying these 10 areas we at least have areas of focus and ways to begin to measure progress or otherwise.

The UK plan focuses on increasing ambition in a broad range of areas, including greener buildings, developing low carbon hydrogen, accelerating the shift to zero emission vehicles and much more besides.

The government updated the plan this month, making new commitments that it says will unlock up to £90 billion of private investment by 2030, and support 440,000 well-paid jobs in green industries in 2030. Of the funding grabbing the headlines, it pledged an extra £3.9 billion for decarbonising heat and buildings, including the new £450 million 3-year Boiler Upgrade Scheme.

In the next 12 months it would be good to see more focus on nature-based carbon offsetting in the UK — the idea that emissions in one sector can be “cancelled out” by paying for a project to reduce emissions or remove carbon from the atmosphere still has a great deal of currency. Offsetting can take place as part of a compliance to meet regulatory requirements, or in the voluntary market to meet wider corporate or public sector decarbonisation goals. It works well, hand in hand with more natural capital investment.

Businesses of every scale have a responsibility to find ways to engage and encourage colleagues and partners to work together to reduce the impact of the way we live and work on our climate.

That’s certainly the case with the built environment, which contributes around 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint. It’s imperative that every funder, developer, contractor, and everyone else in the supply chain - to say nothing of councils and other public sector bodies that commission projects – redoubles efforts in the coming year.

Read about our Decarbonising Communities Strategy

As part of one of the UK’s largest regeneration groups, Morgan Sindall Construction has a carbon reduction strategy which is central to everything we do. In March 2021, we launched Decarbonising Communities, which combines the expertise of our customers, employees and supply chain partners to change the way buildings are designed and constructed, reducing the amount of carbon associated with each asset.

Most recently, we’ve launched a major piece of research alongside procurement specialist SCAPE, architects Lungfish, HLM Architects and the global multi-disciplinary engineering consultancy Cundall. Known as Circular Twin, it took 18 months to produce, and we explored what could be achieved by truly prioritising low carbon as opposed to cost. As a test case, we digitally rebuilt a school that has already been completed, reworking the entire building from start to finish so that each decision and design choice favoured a lower carbon outcome.

The trial shows that it’s possible to deliver a massive reduction of Whole Life Carbon of 67% and slash annual energy consumption by 52% without a significant rise in capital expenditure. The findings show that’s it’s not technology or materials that needs to change, but attitudes.

I do feel the one place where our industry could gather and make a huge impact on low carbon is procurement. By finding ways to work more collaboratively with the greater good of low carbon outcomes in mind, we can all be on a more sustainable economic path. In this case, the green revolution is about thinking differently, resisting some of the existing hierarchies and actually being the change we all need to see.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that hearts and minds are everything; and that if we want to change that’s where we have to start. The government strategy needs to prioritise giving accessibility to change-making for individuals, companies and communities to empower them. I feel we are heading in the right direction at a macro level but, to ease the fear and frustration of (particularly the next) generations we need to see a greater emphasis on enabling individual contributions to decarbonisation. A stronger focus on the polluter pays would also reinforce the behaviours we need to see.

Small changes are part of it. At Morgan Sindall Construction staff, for instance, make a Personal Carbon Pledge, allowing each person to make a small yet significant change. We have also partnered with the Carbon Literacy Project, which sees its staff visiting schools to tell school learners and teaching communities about the role that the construction industry can play in decarbonising communities.

So while the UK’s 10-point plan has been a step forward it’s in the nature of government strategy to be very top level. They are seeking to address the big challenges in our social economic infrastructure, but more consideration needs to be given to the human element after COP26. The next step is about finding more ways to change the behaviour of the 60 million people who live in the UK who can all make an individual contribution if they were given guidance.