During COP25 in Madrid, the 25th Conference of the Parties, world leaders discussed climate change and what global action to take on it.
After 25 such events, we may finally be getting somewhere in taking concerted, serious and meaningful action against the biggest existential threat of our time. The ‘David Attenborough’ and ‘Greta Thunberg’ effects may well have been major influencing factors in this, which in itself requires a blog post …Nonetheless…
Through these advocates, coupled with the intertwined biodiversity extinction crisis of habitat destruction and other effects, we are seeing and reading about the climate impacts on a daily basis – raging wildfires north of the Arctic circle, the worst droughts on record in Australia (and subsequent bushfires), rising temperatures and sea levels (the low-lying Marshall Islands in the Pacific declared a climate emergency as they are inundated by sea water), record temperatures in Europe, and more frequent and forceful hurricanes in the Caribbean.
But what can we do about it, I hear so often? “We recycle our waste, we have fuel-efficient vehicles and we monitor our energy consumption, looking for efficiencies.” If everyone did this, we would be heading in the right direction. But even if we were, we’re missing a trick. For most organisations, the bulk of sustainability impacts are ‘hidden’ in the supply chain due to all the materials and products we order, buy and use to fulfil our needs. This is as true for carbon and climate change, as it is for plastic and poor labour standards.
These ‘hidden’ impacts are often put in the ‘too hard’ basket – “Let’s focus on our own impacts as we have control over those.”
Some relatively simple analysis will tell you how much of your impact is in the supply chain and hence, where your actions should best be directed. For example, a typical tier 1 construction contractor might find that only 1% of their overall impact is due to what they control (their offices, their fleet, their depots, etc.), whilst the remaining 99% is down to their supply chain – the products and services they commission and hire to deliver their projects. In a similar vein, for an estates organisation who is running various buildings and facilities, the split might be 25% and 75%; even still a very significant impact in the supply chain.
If framing the question slightly differently, an average UK house uses materials in its construction that contribute between 50 to 80 tonnes of CO2e. Compare this to the 3.3 tCO2e emitted on average each year from living in the same house (electricity and gas consumption) and you can see that embodied carbon from the supply chain is significant (up to a 25 year ‘payback’). This doesn’t mean to say we should focus on embodied emissions from material to the exclusion of in-use emissions.
What it does say is we should do both: make the building as energy-efficient as possible in use, through the installation of good insulation and efficient lighting and heating systems (the house will, after all, be standing for several decades or more); and also work with our designers, suppliers and contractors to minimise and optimise material consumption.
This is where the drive to reduce carbon and climate change impacts meets the ambitions of the circular economy, and the practical application of lean construction methods and Design for Manufacture Assembly (DfMA). This gives the imperative to engage the value chain so all can contribute to the reduction in carbon emissions.
So, a wise man once said, “Your first job is to work on yourself. The greatest thing you can do for another human being is to get your own house in order”. This is true, but another equally sage piece of advice from another wise soul is, “The argument for getting your own house in order is not an argument for turning our back on the world. We cannot and should not do that.”