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How the Industry is Trying to Decarbonize Construction

The construction industry is a notoriously heavy polluter, from the large amounts of construction waste and dust generated each year to the plentiful diesel exhaust fumes covering many construction sites. But there’s a growing movement to decarbonize construction—especially concerning carbon-heavy concrete and steel buildings.

Here’s how the construction industry is working to lower its carbon footprint.

The Construction Industry is a Heavy Carbon Emitter

Let’s get this out of the way early: The construction industry is one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions globally, accounting for nearly 40 percent of global carbon emissions.

This includes emissions from across the construction value chain, including manufacturing construction materials, transportation, on-site construction activities, and building operations.

Meanwhile, the volume of construction keeps increasing: The United Nations says an area of new buildings the size of Paris is added to the world every five days.

The Importance of Building Facades for Construction Decarbonization

A decarbonization report from the Urban Land Institute identifies building facades as a pivotal area in which architects, construction firms, and building owners can improve the efficiency (and, therefore, the potential emissions) of a building.

“The building facade has been demonstrated to have a critical impact on the life of a building and its users: from human health, productivity, and comfort to energy and carbon emissions,” reads the report, adding that facade-related decarbonization strategies can include:

  • Strategically planning the facade space’s window-to-wall ratio
  • Calculating the full carbon impact of double-pane and triple-pane windows
  • Avoiding excessive wall insulation
  • Using large curtain walls with window sizes of 10 feet, to reduce the amount of framing required
  • Using low-carbon materials in window shading

Other Ways the Construction Industry is Decarbonizing

There are plenty of ways the construction industry is decarbonizing, although some methods are more effective than others, and not every company prioritizes going greener.

The UN report we mentioned earlier says that switching to renewable materials could reduce construction emissions by up to 40 percent by 2050, and that repurposing existing structures can generate up to 75 percent fewer emissions than a new building.

Additionally, construction in general involves complex value chains that include multiple companies, meaning it’s not just construction companies that need to clean up their acts. The good news is that more and more large companies in these chains—including construction, steel, cement, and equipment manufacturing firms—have committed to decarbonization efforts over the next few decades.

Government programs can help, too: A new public-private partnership in Canada launched earlier this year aims to provide low-interest loans to commercial retrofits that reduce carbon emissions by at least 30 percent.

Specifically, here are some things companies can do right now to decarbonize their operations:

  • Choosing carbon-friendly materials: Traditional construction materials like cement and steel are carbon-intensive to produce, contributing significantly to the industry’s carbon footprint. Decarbonization efforts focus on finding alternatives to these materials, such as using recycled or low-carbon materials like timber, bamboo, or engineered wood products. New construction materials such as carbon-fiber reinforced concrete and carbon-negative concrete, or the use of wood over steel, can help.
  • Improving energy efficiency: This can include designing and constructing buildings with better insulation, more efficient HVAC systems, glazing that minimizes solar heat gain, and integrated renewable energy sources such as solar panels or geothermal heating systems.
  • Innovating with technology: Advancements in construction technologies, such as prefabrication, modular construction, and digital twin and building information modeling (BIM) technology, can play a role in decarbonization. Smart building hardware that automates processes, finds operational efficiencies, and monitors equipment performance can also make a difference.

EY suggests construction companies should proactively attempt to reduce emissions along every link in their value chain by focusing on innovation (such as building with mass timber instead of concrete and steel), encouraging suppliers to improve efficiency (through higher quality materials), and reusing or recycling more construction waste. According to an EY-Parthenon analysis, up to 80 percent of unused construction materials go to landfills.

Embodied vs. Operational Carbon Impacts

Analyses have shown that builders should consider two types of carbon impacts of their buildings: embodied and operational carbon. Embodied carbon is the upstream carbon already attributable to a product (from extraction, production, transportation, etc.), while operational carbon is emissions from the building during its life cycle.

The Urban Land Institute report says companies should try to hit the “sweet spot” between both types of carbon by conducting a whole-building life cycle analysis that considers several factors, including the local climate and cleanliness of surrounding energy grids.


The construction and building industry is responsible for a massive amount of carbon emissions, but many companies—and their value chains—have begun to prioritize efficiency. They’re making eco-friendly decisions around building facades and curtain walls, using more environmentally friendly materials, improving energy efficiency, and using technology to innovate and reduce wasteful manual processes.

While no silver bullet will decarbonize buildings en masse, the use of new materials and the shifting of mindsets and processes in the construction industry holds tremendous promise.

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