COP26: What It Means for Construction

The built environment and construction accounts for 38% of total global carbon emissions. So it may surprise you to learn that:

  • The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s COP summits have only had a day specifically dedicated to buildings since 2015
  • This year’s COP26 event was the first to commit a day to the wider question of “Cities, Regions and the Built Environment” (November 11)

It’s no wonder then that Roland Hunziker, director of sustainable buildings and cities at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, has called built environment emissions “the sleeping giant”.

In this blog, we’ll take a look at the agreements coming out of Built Environment Day and the rest of COP26 and what it all means for business in and around the construction sector.

Reducing Embodied Carbon

A huge part of the construction sector’s carbon footprint comes from “embodied carbon” – 25% of the total in the UK, according to the UK Green Building Council.

What is embodied carbon?

It’s the sum total of emissions generated across its lifetime via:

  • Construction materials used
  • The building process and transport
  • Demolition and disposal at end-of-life

The WBCSD warned recently that less than 1% of building projects worldwide account for it in full.

As the projections in the newly-published UKGBC’s Net Zero Whole Life Roadmap make clear, most of the gains made to date by the construction industry have been in operational carbon – that is, the obvious running costs of buildings.


The UKGBC’s Roadmap lays a heavy emphasis on reducing embodied carbon in building processes by:

  • Calling for Whole Life Carbon measurement to be made mandatory in Building Regulations by 2025
  • Changing planning and VAT rules to promote reuse of old buildings
  • Urging constructors to shift to alternative building materials (traditional concrete alone is responsible for 8% of all UK emissions)
  • In the longer term (from the mid 2030s) introducing carbon pricing and anti-carbon leakage policies at the national level

As well as these proposals, the Roadmap puts forward proposals on the operational side:

  • Ending the sale of gas and oil boilers by 2030, with a timeline for phasing them out thereafter
  • Introducing a mandatory minimum EPC “C” required at point-of-sale for owner-occupied homes and the domestic rented sector by 2027-2028
  • Introducing a mandatory domestic retrofit strategy, led by a Central Retrofit Agency
  • Removing VAT removed from energy efficiency retrofit works and tying stamp duty rates to energy efficiency

The Roadmap includes 14 stakeholder action plans for different sectors (including developers, landlords, investor, etc), explaining how they can play their part in this effort.

This promises to be a major landmark in UK construction’s journey to Net Zero.

What Should Construction Companies Do?

Construction Leadership Council Andy Mitchell was absolutely right when he told the CLC’s COP26 event that the sector’s efforts on decarbonisation during the pandemic period show “quite how much can change if we really want it to change”.

But he was also right – as the UKGBC’s data shows – that there’s still a lot to do.

The call to look at embodied carbon just as carefully as operational carbon that came out of Glasgow could lead to some quick wins.

COP26 Construction

Businesses should work towards:

  • Switching to zero-emissions vehicles and plant on-site and for transport purposes (indeed, one of the government’s other commitments was to ensure that all newly-sold HGVs be zero-emissions by 2040)
  • Adopting Modern Methods of Construction and alternatives to concrete and steel wherever possible
  • Reconsidering embodied carbon in materials used for aesthetic purposes (for example, aluminium cladding)
  • Offsetting to compensate for “sunk” carbon in infrastructure and buildings until replacement (the UK government has committed to planting 30,000 hectares of trees per year by 2025)
  • Planning to retrofit and reuse existing buildings rather than constructing new ones
  • Minimising waste and maximising recycling and reuse of materials (eg bricks, metals, concrete) in construction activities
  • Planning transport activities: from using open vehicles where possible rather than containers (to reduce weight) to sourcing materials locally
  • Training workforces in Net Zero Carbon (NZC) skills to achieve a common level of “carbon literacy”
  • Adapting supply chains to put pressure on suppliers to move to lower emissions practices

Where does Social Value fit in?

Businesses that don’t keep up with the push towards Net Zero are likely to find themselves at a growing disadvantage and need to start taking action now.

But Net Zero isn’t the only goal that responsible businesses need to be pursuing.

Take social value, for example. The construction sector has been working hard in recent years to promote this in its work. Already, a minimum of 10% of the weight in public procurement decisions has to be given over to social value considerations.

Are these priorities competing with one another?


One of the five themes in the Social Value Model is “Fighting Climate Change” so your efforts in decarbonising can actually help you to win new business.

Some of the biggest and most successful construction groups are already working hard to get ahead in this space by partnering with Thrive: take a look at the work we have recently undertaken with Kier Group.

If you’d like to find out more about how Thrive could help your business, please get in touch.