How can we achieve decarbonisation in our buildings and construction sector? By Chris Williams-Lilley

Science Based Targets (SBT) is on a mission to provide companies with a clearly defined path to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement goals. Over 4,000 businesses around the world are already working on decarbonization strategies to dramatically reduce their carbon emissions, in response to the climate emergency. Buildings and Construction are the next candidates to go under the SBT microscope, with dedicated decarbonization pathways ready to be shared, tested, and scaled up.

Carbon Reduction Targets are important, and what can be measured, can be improved. The Supply Chain Sustainability School’s Climate Action Group and Carbon Calculator exist to support frameworks such as SBTi, to simplify data gathering, speed up analysis and automatically generate actionable insights. 

In this blog we’ll explore both the SBTi Framework and the new Sectoral Guidance Note for Buildings and Construction – Science Based Targets, and how our upcoming Lower Carbon Buildings: Leading Beyond Walls virtual conference on 27th July links to this.

Who is Behind Science Based Targets?  

The SBTi is a partnership between CDP, the United Nations Global Compact, World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). 

Why Take Action?  

Buildings account for 37% of today’s global CO2 emissions when both operational emissions and embodied emissions of materials are taken into account.

Of this, around 3 Gt CO2e are direct emissions; a further 9.8 Gt CO2e are indirect emissions from electricity and heat consumption; and a further 3.5 Gt CO2e from materials.

Floor area is set to grow approximately 75% over 2020-2050, meaning CO2 emissions will rise dramatically if no decarbonization efforts are made in the sector.

Science Based Targets already publish a set of sector specific decarbonization pathways to help sectors/organizations (globally) develop and set plausible targets that align with the Paris Agreement (1.5 Deg C).

  • Modelling and target setting using Sector-specific Decarbonization Approach (SDA) has helped accelerate climate action for the highest emitting sectors; from Power Generation, Cement, Iron and Steel, to Transport.  In total there are 13 current SDAs.
  • SDA’s are developed by SBT partners, including CDP, WRI and WWF.  The New Buildings and Construction SDA includes insights and recommendations made by an expert advisory group consisting of; Arup, Bouygues, BRE, CBRE, Mitsubishi Electric, and Skanska to name but a few.
  • Not surprisingly, the Building Value Chain will account for manufacturing/production, construction, owners/managers, occupants, and deconstruction.
  • This approach to Whole Life Analysis of GHG inventories should inspire wider discussions on ‘Regenerative Construction’ taking account of Nature Based Solutions (NBS).
  • It should also help with the identification of blockers to enable use of NBS, perform whole life carbon, circularity, and hopefully, highlight capacity-building opportunities across the whole value chain.

A notable exclusion from the scope of intended users of this guidance are upstream manufacturing entities such as raw material producers (e.g. cement and steel) and intermediate product processors and transporters. While their products are intrinsic to the buildings sector, and are involved in setting embodied emission targets, these entities are beyond the scope of the buildings sector guidance. It is recommended to seek target-setting guidance from the sector-agnostic Net-Zero Standard or from sector-specific guidance documents where relevant, such as Steel and Cement mentioned earlier.  

In Action: Building Emissions Generated During Its Lifetime 

Here are some carbon emission sources that can be taken into account when applying the SDA framework to Buildings design and construction – which SBT believe will simplify the task of carbon reduction across the building value chain:  

Example 1: Production 

Production refers to the stage in which the building materials and components are manufactured and processed. This phase includes the extraction and processing of raw materials, and the fabrication and packaging of buildings products and materials. 

Common emission sources:  

  • Mining and processing of metal ores. 
  • Calcination of limestone in the production of cement.

Example 2: Construction 

The process of building a structure, which involves the planning, design, procurement, transport of materials to the site, and building of the structure. It encompasses all activities related to the creation of a building, from the initial concept and design to the practical completion of the building. 

Common emission sources:  

  • Freight transport.
  • On-site heavy equipment.
  • Site energy consumption.

Example 3: Use 

A building’s operational life phase. During this period, the building is ready for use, regardless of whether it is continuously occupied.  

  • Energy use in the building.
  • Refrigeration and cooling systems.  

Example 4: Retrofit 

The introduction of new materials, products and technologies into an existing building to reduce the energy needed to occupy that building. Retrofitting and deep energy renovation are increasingly deemed as pivotal actions in the building sector’s decarbonization. 

  • Freight transport.
  • Renovation site energy consumption.
  • Manufacturing of construction materials.

Example 5: End of Life 

The dismantling, destroying, wrecking, or removal of buildings or structures.  

  • Transport of materials off-site.
  • Site energy consumption.


The availability of a dedicated SBT Guidance Note for Buildings and Construction has been on the cards for a few years. In parallel to this, the UK Government has also worked hard to establish new Regulations and Standards for Buildings, both in domestics and industrial settings.

Both approaches have been made with robust industry and stakeholder engagement to ensure alignment, fit and value – equating to a set of objectives and key results (OKRs) for all participants of the value chain to commit too.

Be it on low-carbon design, switching to renewable sources of electricity, or installation of heat-pumps, we are already witnessing the ways that new and existing buildings can cut energy and carbon, making it exponentially easier for everyone to tap into good practice and bring consistency to an extremely complex problem.

To illustrate this; the UK’s legally-binding climate change targets will not be met without the near-complete elimination of greenhouse gas emissions from UK buildings. Emission reductions from the UK’s 29 million homes have stalled, while energy use in homes – which accounts for 14% of total UK emissions – increased between 2016 and 2017. 

Efforts to adapt the UK’s housing stock to the impacts of the changing climate: for higher average temperatures, flooding and water scarcity, are lagging far behind what is needed to keep us safe and comfortable, even as these climate change risks grow. 

 Recent recommendations made by the UK Gov Committee on Climate Change suggest that action is needed in the following five areas: 

  1. Performance and compliance. The way new homes are built and existing homes retrofitted often falls short of stated design standards.
  2. Skills gap. The chopping and changing of UK Government policy has led to a skills gap in housing design, construction, and in the installation of new technologies. 
  3. Retrofitting existing homes. Ensuring existing homes are low-carbon and resilient to the changing climate is a major UK infrastructure priority, and must be supported as such by the Treasury. 
  4. Building new homes. New homes should be built to be low-carbon, energy and water efficient, and climate resilient. 
  5. Finance and funding. There are urgent funding gaps which must be addressed, including secure UK Government funding for low-carbon sources of heating beyond 2021, and better resources for local authorities. 

If your business is involved with the design, construction or management of buildings, you’ll probably recognize some of the above, and already working on specific areas of improvement.

If you would like to know more about Lower Carbon Buildings, why not join us for our Lower Carbon Buildings virtual conference on the 27th July to hear from industry leaders on how they are tackling climate change, new technologies, and ways of working that can illuminate the way on your own decarbonization journey.  

If you’re in need of decarbonisation and carbon reduction services, get in touch with me today.

For more information

Chris Williams-Lilley
Senior Consultant

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