Last edited 12 Feb 2021

Low carbon in the construction industry

Low carbon is a term applied to an economy, industry, product or activity to describe the relatively low amount of carbon dioxide generated by it over a specific time.

Carbon dioxide from vehicle exhausts, manufacturing, construction, heating and cooling etc, accumulates in the atmosphere contributing to the greenhouse effect and consequently climate change. It is for this reason that achieving a low-carbon economy has become an objective for many countries, regions, businesses and individuals.

Being low-carbon (or decarbonised) essentially requires reducing the direct use of fossil fuelscoal, gas and oil – and also, activities which rely indirectly on fossil fuels, such as cooking and washing, which usually require gas or electricity generated at power stations using fossil fuels (e.g coal and oil). A low fossil-fuel economy (LFFE) is also therefore a low-carbon economy.

Activities or buildings which emit relatively low amounts of carbon dioxide are said to have a low carbon footprint. This may be achieved by designs which focus on renewable energy technology, such as passive solar space/water heating, photovoltaics, triple glazing, high levels of insulation, energy-efficient condensing boilers, building design and orientation and so on. Their inclusion can help reduce a building’s operating costs – lower heating and cooling bills, reducing emissions and therefore lowering the carbon footprint.

Achieving this can also be aided by the materials used in constructing a building. For example, clay bricks tend to have a high embodied energy content. Large amounts of energy are required to make them e.g firing, which requires very high temperatures and is therefore energy intensive. This is why such materials are said to have a high embodied energy content. On the other hand, it can be argued that materials such as clay brick can offset their embodied energy content because they have been proven to last for centuries with minimal maintenance. Such whole-life considerations should be weighed-up when specifying materials of construction.

Building construction is considered to generate relatively high carbon emissions. Transitioning from a high- to a low-carbon construction sector can be difficult but may be achieved by strategies such as:

For more information see: Sustainability.

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