Coronavirus: Why outbreak will reduce construction emissions if projects are cancelled rather than delayed

Andrew Beard, global head, Cost and Commercial, Arcadis talks to about the impact restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus have had on emission levels in the GCC

During the first week of April 2020, the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) released images highlighting the decrease in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentration in the GCC countries, during the period between November 26, 2019 and March 27, 2020.

According to a report by WAM, the Remote Sensing Department at MBRSC published the results using data acquired by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel – 5P mission.

In its findings, it highlighted that the drop in NO2 concentrations beginning late-February coincides with the region-wide precautionary measures taken to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

According to the World Health Organisation, nitrogen dioxide is mainly produced from engines, power generation and other industrial processes. Due to the lockdown announced in various countries, there are fewer vehicles on the road, while fewer planes are taking flight and other industries have slowed down their operations. This has led to the decline in NO2 concentrations, which has in turn improved air quality, the WAM report said.

“Nitrogen oxide emissions originate mainly from burning fossil fuels. The concentration of NOx in diesel exhaust gas is more than 50%,” said Andrew Beard, global head of Cost and Commercial at Arcadis to

He added that the contribution of the construction sector to the overall NO2 emissions in the GCC comes mainly from the operations of heavy equipment on the construction site, as well as materials transport.

“There is no data detailing the size of the contribution. When it comes to the exact numbers, the challenge with establishing them is that there are no universal methods to do so in a consistent way across the projects. If we want to make an estimation on a country or even region level, the task becomes even more difficult.

“Therefore, we can only make an educated guess – we know that transport, agriculture and energy production are responsible for a total of 81% of NOx emission, and that next to construction, there are also other smaller sectors contributing. Hence, we are probably talking about approximately 10%, but as mentioned, this is a very high-level estimate.”

However, he pointed out that there are two areas of reduction in emissions due to the COVID-19 precautionary measures – the construction industry and built environment.

“The reduction of construction work caused by COVID-19 will reduce some CO2 emissions from construction, but it won’t make a significant difference to the overall total.  This is because most of the CO2 emissions caused by construction are associated with the manufacture of the materials used to build.

“Therefore, COVID-19 will only really reduce construction-related emissions if projects are cancelled rather than delayed. We also expect that the introduction of additional safety procedures is slowing the pace of work, which could be reflected in lower emissions.

“The definition of built environment emissions is much broader, and it includes, next to emissions from construction operations, also emissions from our buildings being operated (so-called operational carbon). Buildings are big users of energy and as a result are also a major source of CO2.  It is possible that the shutdown of buildings during the crisis may have reduced emissions. However, we should remember that the emissions from the offices or shopping centres most likely were “compensated” by the increased emissions from the residential sector.

“Taking a bigger picture into account, I would expect that the decrease in emissions we are observing is due mainly to the limitations in transport,” Beard said, adding that the biggest opportunities to reduce NO2 emissions is in the transport and mechanised plant sectors.

“Steps have already been taken to make diesel engines cleaner, but the big change will come from a transition to renewable energy. This is happening with cars and buses, but electric power for heavy goods vehicles and heavy plant is currently a long way off.  It is a long journey, but we think that construction is in a good place to drive the demand for much cleaner on-site power,” he concluded.


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