Today's more sustainable and recycled building materials can help reduce the output of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Traditional construction materials have historically left a larger footprint, but a recent report found that it's possible to reduce emissions produced in residential buildings' material cycles by at least 80% in 2050 with the help of more efficient materials.
In 2020, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) International Resource Panel published a report titled Resource Efficiency and Climate Change: Material Efficiency Strategies for a Low Carbon Future. G7 countries commissioned the report, which revealed that the processing and initial extraction of natural resources account for over 90% of water stress and global biodiversity loss. Additionally, these factors contribute to nearly 50% of greenhouse gas emissions across the globe.
To help combat global warming, the report proposed designing buildings and vehicles with either alternative or fewer construction materials. It also advised recycling construction materials as another helpful strategy. Implementing these and other potential emissions-reducing strategies could reduce greenhouse gas production in G7 countries, including the U.S., by 170 million tons from 2016 to 2060. They would also reduce emissions by up to 270 million tons in India and 350 million tons in China.
Martina Otto, the head of UNEP's Cities Unit, emphasized the necessity of implementing policies to help enforce these changes. Specifically, she stated:
"Policies can influence how people live, which materials they use and how they use them. Instruments such as taxation, zoning and land use regulation play a role, but so do consumer preferences and behavior. Building codes and standards drive building performance and connect building design to policy. They can encourage or constrain material efficiency and circularity."
According to Otto, there are also plenty of options available to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in construction. The report found that timber that's efficiently harvested and managed could reduce emissions by as much as 1-8% in G7 countries by 2050. Additionally, products made from recycled agricultural waste could further improve the sustainability of construction.
Apart from using different materials, the report suggests using fewer materials altogether when possible. Specifically, designing buildings with fewer material requirements could result in an 8-10% savings by 2050 in G7 countries. Coupled with more natural light, passive cooling and heating, and other systems that don't require as much equipment, the elimination of materials in building construction could significantly increase efficiency without compromising structural integrity.
Not only would using better and fewer materials help make for more sustainable construction, but the UNEP report also determined that these practices would reduce emissions from the entire building life cycle by up to 35-40% in G7 countries by 2050. This would include emissions resulting from operations and dismantling.
To help drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the construction industry, companies need to shift toward designs that rely on fewer materials. At the same time, they should do what they can to use sustainable timber and other more efficient materials to complete projects. Taking these steps would help contribute to a far healthier environment in the long term.
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