How Europe can deliver a sustainable built environment

A life cycle, material neutral approach is key to decarbonising European buildings, writes CEMBUREAU’s Koen Coppenholle.
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By Koen Coppenholle

Koen Coppenholle is the Chief Executive of CEMBUREAU

15 Apr 2021

As discussed in the recently-organised Concrete Dialogue: Sustainable Built Environment from a Societal Perspective, the European Green Deal brings a welcome opportunity to make European buildings carbon neutral. As the EU reviews its legislation on the built environment and launches the new European Bauhaus, there has never been a more exciting time to push for circularity and life-cycle approaches to decarbonise our buildings.

Let’s be clear: tomorrow’s sustainable built environment will require a mix of building materials. We trust, of course, that concrete will continue to play an essential role, but steel, glass, and timber will also have their place. Each building is unique in design and will likely include different building materials in varying proportions. It is precisely this need for a mix of materials that should involve a cooperative approach to building design.

Only through working together will it be possible for building materials at end-of-life to be easily separated and processed with a view to their recycling in a wholly circular approach (“design for deconstruction” approach). The full supply chain concept of the Green Deal will also stimulate an increased dialogue between manufacturers, builders, contractors, planners, architects and end-users, and the cement and concrete industry is eager to embark on that journey.

With buildings generating nearly 40 percent of annual GHG emissions, it is a core responsibility for our sector, as for any building material manufacturer, to ensure that the regulatory framework being set out provides long-term legal certainty and adopts a fair, material neutral approach.

Below are a few suggestions that can guide the upcoming policy reflection:

  • Buildings as active participants in the energy system. In the revision of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, there is a unique opportunity to recognise that buildings can become - through thermal activation of heavy-weight building materials - energy hubs, not only consuming but also producing and storing energy, thus making the overall energy system more flexible and efficient.
  • Life cycle assessment at building level. There is a broad consensus among construction experts that the most efficient way to reduce CO2 emissions from the built environment is to focus on emissions at the level of a building. In this respect, the European Commission’s Level(s) approach, which promotes lifecycle thinking for buildings from design to end-of-life, based on fair assessments of material’s performance, should be supported. Such a full life cycle approach should also look at end-of-life emissions allowing recycling or, in the case of concrete, recarbonation, whereby CO2 reabsorbed during the life and after-life of a building is considered. The emphasis on a proper end-of-life assessment avoids a recourse to “quick-wins” in slowing down climate change through methodologies that omit this end-of-life stage and, unfortunately, defer emissions to the next generation without providing a long-term solution to climate challenge.

“With buildings generating nearly 40 percent of annual GHG emissions, it is a core responsibility for our sector, as for any building material manufacturer, to ensure that the regulatory framework being set out provides long-term legal certainty and adopts a fair, material neutral approach”

 

  • Embodied emissions. It will be crucial for the built environment to reduce the embodied carbon from materials used. Cement and concrete producers are aware of their share of responsibility in this, and are well set up to contribute. CO2 emissions from our sector are well-known and quantified, and CEMBUREAU has identified in its Carbon Neutrality Roadmap the levers to reduce these, at each step of our production processes, to arrive at carbon neutrality by 2050. However, policymakers cannot turn a blind eye to other building materials. The preference, also in EU policy documents, for timber as the building material of choice without any critical observation or quantification of emissions from the plantations, logging, transportation, and the use of carbon-intensive glues in wood-based materials at least raises eyebrows. A fair policy approach further requires (i) a thorough assessment of the assumption of climate neutrality of timber building materials and (ii) an analysis of increased wood demand scenarios on the sustainable supply of wood and on the global balance of emissions and sinks. The timber sector claims that whatever carbon is harvested is replaced by new growth, without taking into account biogenic carbon losses or carrying out an assessment of the exact replacement of living biomass being cut.
  • Material neutrality as a policy guiding principle. This principle follows from the above, but policymakers should guard against designing policies that may prefer one building material over another without any sound, proven and peer-reviewed scientific justification. Policies should be developed that support and drive the decarbonisation of life-cycle emissions for all building materials on an equal and fair basis.

CEMBUREAU and its Members are keen to contribute to the debate.

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