Last edited 03 May 2021

Carbon dioxide in construction



[edit] Introduction

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 and plants and trees take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. The term 'biogenic carbon' refers to:'Emissions are those that originate
from biological sources such as plants, trees, and soil.' ref ‘Climate Emergency Design Guide: How new buildings can meet UK climate change’, published by The London Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI) in January 2020.

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 a greenhouse.

Despite some uncertainty regarding the severity of the temperature response to a given increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, there is a general consensus that:

  • The earth’s climate has always changed over timescales ranging from thousands of years to millennia;
  • Greenhouse gases from human activity are warming the world (anthropogenic);
  • Effort is needed to reduce emissions and to adapt to the changes that are likely to occur from the gases already in the atmosphere.

[edit] Climate Change Act

The Climate Change Act 2008 established a legally binding target to reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% below 1990 year levels by 2050.

To drive progress, the Act introduced a system of carbon budgets which provide legally binding limits on the amount of emissions that may be produced in successive five-year periods:

  1. 2008-2012, 23% reduction below 1990 levels.
  2. 2013-2017, 29% reduction below 1990 levels.
  3. 2018-2022, 35% reduction below 1990 levels.
  4. 2023-2027, 50% reduction below 1990 levels.

[edit] Uses in construction

There are a number of direct uses of carbon dioxide by the construction industry:

However, more significantly, there are considerable emissions of carbon dioxide as a result of activities to construct and then operate built assets.

According to the Technology Strategy Board, 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).

The UK Green Building Council says that around 10% of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions are directly associated with construction. This includes the CO2 generated through the entire building process:

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:

[edit] Sustainable materials

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.

Other 'sustainable' materials such as timber, straw and compressed earth have lower carbon footprints than cement, as well as absorbing CO2 while growing.

For more information see: Sustainable materials.

[edit] Waste management

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 emphasises the need for accurate estimating and having effective strategies for reusing materials on other projects.

Programmes such as the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) attempt to encourage efforts towards a resource-efficient economy.

See also: Site waste management plan and Waste hierarchy for construction.

[edit] Transportation

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.

[edit] Other strategies

There are several other strategies that can be undertaken to reduce CO2 on construction sites, such as:

[edit] Energy consumption

Around 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. In addition, energy consumption can be directly attributed to the the lifecycle of building products and materials. For more information, see Embodied energy.

[edit] Carbon capture and storage

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.

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