Two years ago, in a report for the Circular Economy Task Force, we called on the government to adopt a new strategic approach to resource use. In particular, we wanted to see a bold target to reduce raw material use. We called for this because resource use is an undeniable, but far too often overlooked, driver of climate change, as well as many other types of environmental damage.
To illustrate the point, here’s a fact I think can’t be repeated often enough: according to the UN, resource extraction and processing (including food and fuel) drives 50 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and more than 90 per cent of biodiversity loss and water stress.
The devolved nations have noticed this link and are leading the way. Wales was the first to act, saying it would achieve ‘one planet resource use’ by 2050 in its 2021 strategy. More recently, Northern Ireland set out specifically, in its 2023 draft circular economy strategy, that it would halve its per person resource use from by 2050. And Scotland has indicated it is likely to set a target with similar aims following the passing of its Circular Economy Bill.
England dropped its ambitions
For a brief moment, it looked like something might change in England, too. The initial set of targets developed as part of the Environment Act process initially included a target on resource efficiency, a measure that would compare economic output to raw material use. While this wasn’t the absolute reduction target we had called for, it was certainly a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, it was dropped.
The official reason was that “setting a legally binding target at this stage is premature” and more time is needed to develop the evidence base and assess policies. And, certainly, reliable data on material use can be a challenge to come by. My colleagues and I, who today launched a new report on material use in construction know this all too well.
We decided to look at material use in UK construction because the sector has a bigger material footprint than any other, as well as producing 62 per cent of the country’s waste and causing 25 per cent of carbon emissions. We set out to understand the extent of material use in construction and how it could be reduced.
After months of searching, we came across the first ever comprehensive study of material use in UK construction, which is about to be released from academics at the UK FIRES consortium. Today’s construction sector uses nearly 100Mt of materials in new buildings and infrastructure projects each year, 82 per cent of which are virgin resources, predominantly concrete. Onto this baseline, we then applied feasible reductions in raw material requirements for future buildings and infrastructure, according to academic studies, to understand how much this could be reduced. We focused on circular measures, including better design (which we found to have the biggest impact), as well as reusing components and materials, using more recycled content and extending the lives of existing buildings.
The industry has everything it needs to change
The techniques and technologies we modelled are available today, meaning our results are likely to be an underestimation of what could be achieved and yet they show that a massive reduction in raw material use is possible within 12 years. It means that, by 2035, the UK construction industry could have cut its use of raw materials by 37 per cent. This, in turn, would reduce the associated carbon emissions by nearly 40 per cent.
Throughout our research, we consulted widely with industry experts, academics and trade associations, to check the analysis was as robust as possible and understand the barriers faced by the industry. The feedback they gave us was invaluable. The clear message was that, at present, there are few incentives for the industry to work in a more circular way, so excess material use is rife and there are strong incentives to demolish unnecessarily.
But, it need not be this way. The experts also largely agree that no new technologies are needed to improve material use. Many suggested the best way to ensure the ones we have are deployed is through regulation, with one saying it is the “most potent” way of driving change, and another that regulation has been one of the “principle drivers of innovation”.
Even better news is that, in many instances, this will improve the economic as well as environmental performance of the industry. Arup and Ellen MacArthur have found that circular construction business models increase profitability by as much as 26 per cent; retrofitting can save money, as with the conversion of British Land’s headquarters, which took 30 per cent less time and cost 15 per cent less, compared to demolition and new build; and modern methods of construction, which often involve offsite manufacturing of building components in a factory, can increase productivity by reducing project time by up to 60 per cent and costs by up to 40 per cent.
Our study shows that the highest impact sector could drastically reduce its environmental impact and become a more profitable industry fit for the net zero future. If the devolved administrations can do it, with ambitious resource reduction targets, England has no excuse not to be far behind.