Going Green: Reducing Carbon Emissions in Construction

Construction activity generates around 10% of the world’s carbon emissions, with much of that coming from the heavy equipment used on building sites. That’s why it’s not surprising that the race is on to develop heavy machinery that can be powered by more environmentally friendly means than diesel.

The Problem of the Carbon Footprint in Construction 

Construction is a dirty business. Literally.  

Once a site has been identified to build on it needs to be completely cleared, as the ground is prepared for workers to begin the construction phase. This may mean demolishing an existing structure and removing debris and material, or it could involve preparing a greenfield site, which might necessitate uprooting and disposing of vegetation.  

Either way, once cleared, trenches need to be dug for foundations, holes drilled for piling and tons of earth moved from one place to another. 

After these tasks have been completed, construction material then needs to be brought onto the site and raised or lowered into place. 

All of this requires a lot of planning and effort—and equipment. Inevitably, huge machines are involved in the process, most of which have traditionally been fuelled by diesel. 

Reducing Carbon Emissions in Construction 

It’s therefore not surprising that 10% of global carbon emissions released into the atmosphere come from the polluting activities of construction sites

Industry professionals have been taking steps to reduce the wider environmental impact of construction for more than a decade. In 2010, the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) published a report, “Carbon: Reducing the footprint of the construction process,” in which it set out a voluntary carbon reduction target of 15% by 2012, compared with 2008 levels. 

Introducing the CIOB’s report, the then-chair of the Strategic Forum for Construction, Nick Raynsford, said it was “splendid to see the rhetoric turning into plans for practical actions that real companies and organisations can take to play their part in reducing our national carbon emissions.”  

More than 10 years on, however, construction’s carbon problem remains. Even the scantest of anecdotal evidence can illustrate that heavy earth-moving machinery is often left to idle, its diesel-fuelled engines running, while its operator waits to work on another part of the site.  

How UK Firms Are Using Data to Go Green 

Yet the construction sector is striving to clean up its act. Along with trade bodies, individual firms are taking steps to improve their operations and drive cleaner working practices on-site. 

Take Costain. In 2018, it claimed to be one of the first infrastructure companies in the U.K. to introduce air quality standards for plant machinery used on complex delivery projects nationwide.  

And in the past 18 months, Costain says it has used real-time telematics data to further reduce construction machine carbon emissions by as much as 30%. 

Lara Young, Costain’s group climate change director, said the availability of such data “makes it easier to identify where and how to reduce air pollution by reducing inactive time and idling of construction machinery.  

“It allows project teams to plan the use of machinery more effectively and to pinpoint hotspots, highlight where driver behaviours need to change and, ultimately, cost savings.” 

AI and Low-Carbon Technology 

Some firms are going down the artificial intelligence route. Last year HS2, the company building the second phase of England’s high-speed rail link, announced it was trialling a new AI tool, which it said would help to reduce its carbon footprint. 

HS2 said the tool would automate the BIM process so different design options could be simulated using different types and quantities of construction materials. 

Another development is the move toward electrically powered construction equipment, which one might argue was inevitable following the increase in popularity of electric and hybrid cars. 

Volvo has launched a range of electric diggers, which the firm claims match the performance of the diesel variety and can work for up to eight hours on a single charge. When the time comes to give them a reboot, vehicles can be charged up to 80% in just an hour and a half. And there are no nasty diesel fumes to contend with. 

Another manufacturer, Wacker Neuson, notes the emission-free benefits of electric machinery and highlights the cost effectiveness of such powered diggers and loaders, which the firm says need little maintenance and are also quieter to operate than their diesel counterparts. 

Why the Future Is Electric 

The development of cleaner, more environmentally friendly construction equipment is largely being driven by the need to reduce carbon emissions. But there is another advantage to low-carbon construction: reducing project costs.  

All-electric machinery is cheaper to run. Electric vehicles don’t idle, so when they stop being used they get switched off, while diesel machinery can chug away while in neutral, pumping out exhaust fumes—and carbon emissions—for as long as there is fuel in the tank.  

Evidently, as pressure to reduce carbon emissions grows, the construction sector is responding. The race to develop and increase the use of cleaner equipment on construction sites, along with efforts to lower—indeed eradicate—embodied carbon in new buildings, are a clear indication of the sector’s drive to carry out its activities with greater regard for the world around us.

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