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Last edited 21 Nov 2018
Carbon dioxide in construction
Carbon dioxide is a naturally-occurring gas that is integral to life and characterised by being colourless and odourless. Its chemical formula is CO2, made up of a carbon atom which is covalently double-bonded to two oxygen atoms.
In the Earth’s atmosphere, carbon dioxide exists at a concentration of around 0.04% (400 ppm) by volume. Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere by dissolution from carbonate rocks, volcanoes, hot springs and geysers, as well as occurring in groundwater, glaciers, oceans, rivers and lakes. In addition, all aerobic organisms produce carbon dioxide when respiring.
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and the increase in the burning of carbon-based fossil fuels, as well as increasing deforestation, since the Industrial Revolution, is leading to higher rates of global warming as a result of more carbon being concentrated in the atmosphere.
Greenhouse gases are relatively transparent to short-wave infrared radiation (such as heat from the sun). This means that they allow sunlight to enter the atmosphere and heat the Earth’s surface. These surfaces then re-radiate that heat as long-wave infrared radiation, which greenhouse gases tend to absorb rather than transmit. The result is that the long-wave infrared radiation is ‘trapped’ and heat accumulates in the atmosphere causing a warming process. This process is known as the ‘greenhouse’ effect because it is similar to the effect that glass has, trapping heat in greenhouses.
- That the earth’s climate has always changed over timescales ranging from thousands of years to millennia; that alongside natural forcings.
- Greenhouse gases from human activity are warming the world.
- Effort is needed to reduce emissions and to adapt to the changes that are likely to occur from the gases already in the atmosphere.
- 2008-2012, 23% reduction below 1990 levels.
- 2013-2017, 29% reduction below 1990 levels.
- 2018-2022, 35% reduction below 1990 levels.
- 2023-2027, 50% reduction below 1990 levels.
 Uses in construction
- Carbon dioxide is one of the most commonly used compressed gases for pneumatic systems (pressurised gas) in portable pressure tools that are ubiquitous in the construction industry.
- MIG/MAG welding uses carbon dioxide as an atmosphere, as a means of protecting the weld puddle from the surrounding air and oxidizing. When mixed with argon, a higher welding rate can be achieved which often reduces the need for post-weld treatment. In manufacturing casting moulds, carbon dioxide helps to ensure their hardness and rigidity.
- Carbon dioxide is also used to create dry ice pellets which can be used to replace sandblasting for removing paint from surfaces.
According to the Technology Strategy Board, in the UK, the construction, operation and maintenance of the built environment accounts for 45% of total UK carbon emissions (27% from domestic buildings and 18% from non-domestic buildings).
According to the UK Green Building Council, around 10% of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions are directly associated with construction. This includes the CO2 generated through the entire building process:
- Manufacturing (including the energy to manufacture capital equipment, heating and lighting of factories and so on)
In order to meet emissions targets, the construction industry has been trying to adopt various strategies to reduce the level of CO2 that is produced during construction. Some of these strategies include:
Optimising the use of less polluting materials is an important way of cutting embedded carbon in new buildings. Around half of all CO2 emissions in the industry are from cement production, both in the manufacturing process and as a by-product of the chemical reactions. Low-carbon cements are available which are less energy-intensive to produce as they often include magnesia, enabling the absorption of carbon dioxide during curing.
For more information, see Research on novel cements to reduce CO2 emissions.
For more information see: Sustainable materials.
Cutting waste through the ‘three Rs’ – reduce, reuse and recycle – is an important hierarchy for cutting CO2 emissions in construction. Waste is often produced by ordering excess materials for a project, which emphasise the need for accurate estimating and having effective strategies for reusing materials on other projects.
Currently, transportation accounts for around 20% of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions. Solutions that could be adopted include switching to more efficient vehicles and plant; sourcing materials locally thereby reducing the distance they have to be transported; and trying to condense deliveries from the same suppliers wherever possible as a means of reducing the number of journeys needed to and from the site.
 Other strategies
There are several other strategies that can be practiced to reduce CO2 on construction sites, such as:
- Producing an energy plan during early planning stages to assess the energy requirements of the project.
- Securing early, high-capacity electricity grid connection, thereby reducing the need for generators.
- Avoid using over-sized generators.
- Efficient energy management in site offices, such as intelligent electrical installations (i.e. daylight sensors).
- Using site accommodation with an energy performance certificate (EPC) rating of A, B, or C to reduce heating and lighting costs.
- Avoiding leaving plant and vehicles idling.
80% of the emissions associated with the built environment are from buildings in use. Strategies to reduce this, include designing buildings that consume less energy, and ensuring that renewable energy is sourced.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) refers to a range of technologies that capture CO2 emissions and then store them permanently so that they do not enter the atmosphere and contribute to climate change.
For more information, see Carbon capture and storage.
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- Carbon capture and storage.
- Carbon emissions.
- Carbon emissions reduction target CERT.
- Carbon fibre.
- Carbon nanotubes.
- Carbon plan.
- Climate Change Act.
- Construction materials.
- CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme.
- Embodied energy.
- Emission rates.
- Low carbon construction IGT.
- Site waste management plan.
- Sustainable materials.
- The Carbon Plan: Delivering our low carbon future.
- Warming houses using free CO2.
- Waste and Resources Action Programme WRAP.
- Waste hierarchy for construction.
- Water vapour.
- Zero carbon homes.
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