Why all building materials must be supply and climate sustainable

Credit: Alamy

Robert Largan MP

From net-negative concrete to UK-grown timber and sustainable steel, every material must play its part in delivering a net-zero built environment by 2050.

The disruptions caused by Covid-19 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have laid bare the importance of strong supply chains, with imports of many products disrupted. Local businesses in High Peak are working hard under sustained price pressures to supply essential materials for construction and other industries, to get homes built and infrastructure projects supplied across the country.

In the built environment, there has long been a heated debate over the best building material from a sustainability perspective, often involving concrete, wood and steel putting forward competing arguments. It’s not just about carbon emissions: biodiversity, water, longevity, fire and flood resistance are all there.

Rarely does anyone ask if there is a sustainable supply of materials or how best to utilize the limited supply of sustainably sourced materials. Given the recent shocks to global supply chains, this is a question we need to ask more frequently.

So it was interesting to see Confor – the professional forestry body – publish a direct and refreshing assessment of the limits of sustainable timber sourcing earlier this year. Reflecting the UK’s position as a large net importer of timber products, their chief executive asked if we risk putting undue pressure on vulnerable forests in other parts of the world:

“We will always be a huge importer of wood products, and we have a strong regulatory system in place to ensure that the wood we import comes from legal and sustainable sources, but other countries are not as strict – the pressure on fragile forests overseas will almost certainly increase as pressure on supply increases, and with the war in Ukraine this imbalance will be felt sooner and harder. – Stuart Goodall, CEO of Confor

Concrete and other mineral products present different challenges. Geologically abundant, over 95% of the concrete used in the UK comes from the UK, while around 80% of the timber and 60% of the steel is imported. 100% of aggregate production and 90% of concrete production by members of the Mineral Products Association – the trade body for aggregates, cement and concrete – are certified to BES 6001. This ensures that products come from responsible sources and can be traced back to the quarry from which they originated.

The main procurement challenge is the existing planning system, which does not provide new authorized reserves at the rate that materials are used. The Leveling and Regeneration Bill will hopefully improve things.

The main challenge for the sector is the climate. The concrete and cement industry accounts for around 1.5% of UK greenhouse gas emissions. It has a roadmap to net negative by 2050 and is already making progress on that roadmap with hydrogen fuel trials, low carbon concretes and hopefully premiering soon UK cement plant with carbon capture, before eventually activating all cement plants, whether in CCUS clusters. or not. It won’t be cheap or easy, but the industry is making progress right now.

We need a net zero built environment by 2050, whatever the materials involved – and I hope net negative carbon concrete will compete with more UK grown timber and sustainable steel . We cannot continue to depend on imported wood, exporting our own forest footprint.

We need materials that are sustainable for the built environment, in terms of climate and sustainable sourcing – and all materials need to deliver.

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