The pursuit of net-zero construction 

By Denyse van Opbergen

As climate change impacts intensify worldwide, it’s abundantly clear: maintaining the status quo is a luxury we can no longer afford. The imperative to drastically curtail global emissions has become a non-negotiable reality. Within this challenge, the infrastructure and buildings sector emerges as a pivotal avenue to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. With $8 trillion in assets, construction accounts for a staggering 18 per cent of the nation’s GHG emissions; the stage is set for a paradigm shift that mitigates environmental damage while stimulating economic growth and innovation.

In the landscape of service-based industries, the focus on direct emissions (the emissions a purchasing entity has full and direct control over) alone is not enough, as these are relatively minor compared to emissions from upstream and downstream activities. This is particularly true for the buildings industry, where a holistic perspective that considers every facet of a building’s life cycle is necessary; from resource extraction for materials to construction, operation, eventual demolition, and even end-of-life disposal. As a building services company, EllisDon is working on three focus areas to support decarbonization across the industry: business operations (including construction operations), material procurement, and the operational performance of existing and new buildings.

Navigating carbon accountability in 
construction operations

Within the complex realm of carbon accounting that encompasses all industries, the construction sector stands out as an arena marked by pronounced data gaps. Federal regulations are yet to mandate tracking and reporting, although a glint of promise emerges through the federal government’s directive of emission disclosure for procurement contracts exceeding $25 million, with broader legislation anticipated in the future. Requirements for companies to track and report on emissions, including the generation of project-specific data to evaluate carbon intensity, will need to be straightforward and rigorous. This journey will demand transparency, simplicity and rigour in tracking and reporting, requiring a delicate balance between the quality of the available industry data and the expectations of the complexity of reporting to come. Achieving this balance will hinge on collaborative efforts across the industry to refine these requirements in harmony with evolving insights and data.

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The pursuit of data transparency 

EllisDon has invested in significant research to understand all sources of our emissions, how we can track them, and ultimately, what can be done to reduce them. This extends to both data within our immediate control and that of our project partners to improve our processes and reduce emissions as we construct assets for our clients. To push this forward, we have included the requirement to track this information as part of our standard subcontract language, which is now being adopted across the industry. Through partnerships with our subcontractors in numerous pilot projects, we are starting to better understand the emissions from what we build (particularly on-site fuel consumption and the transportation of materials to and from construction sites) and our subcontractors are starting to recognize that we need to move forward together, even without regulatory clarity. This pursuit of data transparency will allow us to fill the current data gap that exists within the industry as our knowledge and awareness progresses.

For contractors to be able to reduce their operational emissions, decarbonization of construction equipment and processes is pivotal and we’ve seen a spectrum of alternatives to traditionally used equipment and processes come to market. However, the commercialization of these technologies can be challenging due to high upfront costs, coupled with research and development investments, and the constraints of infrastructure availability. There can also be some resistance to change from industry stakeholders who are accustomed to traditional practices. Despite these challenges, industry leaders are starting to recognize the need to change and are taking steps to embrace new technologies and processes to reduce the sector’s environmental impact.

The procurement of low-carbon materials

In the Canadian landscape, billions are invested annually in the materials required to build critical infrastructure. With public spending surpassing $5 billion, the manufacture of steel, aluminum and concrete alone represents more than 300,000 jobs across the country. The production of these and other building materials is carbon-intensive, and accounts for roughly 11 per cent of global emissions.

There is a clear need for low-carbon materials, but there is currently a lack of market recognition of the cost of carbon in procurement. While investment in low-carbon solutions for building operations has ties to the overall financial performance of an asset, either through energy savings or green premiums, the investment in low-carbon materials at the construction phase will not impact overall pro formas or long-term asset performance. Project developers need to incentivize the use of low-carbon materials. Government procurement can lead the way and show materials manufacturers there is demand for low-carbon products by including carbon emission metrics aligned with costs and other project metrics to support holistic procurement decisions that can then be replicated throughout the market.

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Procurement in the construction industry is typically driven by specifications and requirements set by clients and the design team. Despite growing awareness of the need to reduce carbon emissions, a lack of familiarity with the complexity of the procurement chain, and therefore how to best specify sustainability requirements, often hampers the inclusion of low-carbon alternatives in specifications. The fragmented nature of the construction materials supply chain, involving multiple suppliers across production and distribution, exacerbates the challenge of tracking and comparing the embodied carbon of different materials, hurting any potential of informed decision-making.

To address these challenges, greater collaboration and communication between clients, the design team and materials suppliers is necessary. A general contractor can help bridge the gap between the different parties, particularly through educating on the implications of cost, scheduling and performance. This can involve sharing knowledge and best practices for selecting and using low-carbon materials, investing in research and development to improve the sustainability of materials and construction processes, and driving improved data transparency throughout the supply chain.

Innovation is occurring continually in the construction materials sector, and we’ve seen significant strides made in lowering the embodied carbon of materials in a short amount of time, particularly in the concrete sector. As sustainability becomes a more significant priority, we can expect to see continued innovation and progress towards decarbonization in all aspects of materials and construction processes.

Accelerating sustainable building performance and decarbonization 

While the blueprints for low-carbon operations exist and are understood, they are yet to be implemented at scale. A significant challenge exists from the disconnect between overarching client corporate objectives and on-ground execution. Often, conflicting interests and the absence of an evaluation of carbon impacts result in the omission of low-carbon solutions. This creates barriers to implementing sustainable solutions and achieving decarbonization goals.

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According to research from RBC, while there has been progress in new construction, a significant portion of the building sector’s emissions are still coming from the operations of existing buildings. Although the government has introduced incentive programs for retrofit pilots and low-interest financing through the CIB, there is still hesitation from the wider market to fully embrace retrofits. There is a lack of regulatory clarity signaling the long-term destination of the building sector. This has created uncertainty and has made it difficult for investors to prioritize upgrades and retrofits that can lead to significant reductions in emissions. Even early adopters who have been planning for retrofits are holding back on advancing projects due to the challenge of understanding clear risks and opportunities outside of energy savings.

Despite these challenges, there are opportunities for progress in decarbonizing the industry. Clients are increasingly driving for decarbonization results, which makes it easier to support and focus attention on building and renovating assets to meet those goals. This alignment between client goals and industry objectives, in combination with standards and regulations, will create a more significant demand for low-carbon building products and processes, driving innovation and progress towards decarbonization. Ultimately, by fostering collaboration among stakeholders and prioritizing sustainability in procurement and material selection, the construction industry is poised to make significant progress in reducing its carbon emissions, propelling us towards a more sustainable future.

Denyse van Opbergen is senior manager, Climate and Sustainability, Sustainable Building Solutions, with EllisDon.

[This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 edition of ReNew Canada]

Featured image: Though collaborative partnerships with its subcontractors in numerous pilot projects, EllisDon has a better understanding of the emissions generated from what they build. Pictured: Edmonton Valley Line Southeast LRT. (EllisDon)


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