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Mission possible: Setting construction on course for building a more resilient world

It is possible to get where we need to be on sustainable buildings and infrastructure with the right partnerships writes Katarina Uherova Hasbani, Partner and Global Director of Strategy and Advisory, AESG

COP28 is upon us. Dubai has prepared to host more than 70,000 delegates and world leaders in their latest round of debate and collaboration over climate matters. Through my work with regional governments, industry associations and private enterprises I know that brought to the table will be discussions around the areas that have the most impact and potential for yielding practical outcomes. Foremost among these will be the strategies to reduce the  carbon emissions associated with infrastructure, including the built environment, which is collectively responsible for an estimated 79% of the global total.

Blueprints for success

With buildings being behind 39% of the world’s energy-related carbon emissions, it is no question that the sustainability of the construction sector will be a top focus for participants at COP28. A successful conference would be one in which steps are clearly outlined for stakeholders to take practical action for infrastructure and buildings included. These measures must allow for the regeneration and preservation of the natural environment and provide fair treatment to those that are exposed to climate change impacts, while creating economic value for future generations.

This may seem like a tall order, but it isn’t unattainable. A sustainable, low-carbon world is possible. We have the tools and the expertise to create it. We can design, develop, and operate our built environment using a lifecycle approach, where we account for the whole lifetime of an asset and its associated carbon and costs. We must collaborate, we must raise awareness, we must build capabilities, and we must share budgetary requirements and risks while identifying opportunities for mutual action. Perhaps most importantly, we must remember that asset decarbonisation is a process, not an outcome. We must monitor progress, be transparent about our restraints, and redesign our efforts as we go.

Laying foundations for a greener future

Building and infrastructure designs are evolving. They now integrate environmental sustainability and low-carbon solutions, including reducing virgin materials and energy demand, and eliminating fossil fuels. Modern designs also incorporate circularity principles and sequester carbon where possible. We see industry certifications such as LEED, PAS2080, EDGE, International Living Future Institute, BREAM, and others set better standards for net-zero journeys. And through closer collaborations between clients and consultants, we are seeing costs starting to fall in projects such as MC2 Masdar City Campus and Expo City, which is hosting COP28 delegates.

In the construction and commissioning phases we also see this incorporation of sustainability and decarbonisation principles. Organisations have begun to focus on materials, energy and water usage, and waste management throughout construction. We are seeing, for example, more electrification of equipment. We also see efforts to reduce transportation, including employee and contractor commutes, and to introduce more efficient vehicles and equipment. Additionally, projects are improving how they use water, including going so far as to recycle it on site. And we also see the recycling of construction waste materials, which are reused in interior design or some structural elements. What is most encouraging is that clients’ tender requirements are what is driving these changes. Costs are now increasingly shared between client and provider, which is a model that is less likely to break down than if one party bore the burden.

Once in operation, buildings can benefit from enhanced management practices in energy, water, and waste, based on measurement, optimisation, and the selection of alternative pathways. For energy, these alternative pathways lie in the procurement of renewable power and the reduction of fossil-fuel usage. For water, pathways include local recycling and reuse. For waste, we must repair, reduce, reuse, and recycle. If we want to see sustainable, low-carbon assets, we must invest in high-performing automation, digitisation, and predictive practices. We have seen sustainable building operations deliver cost savings in the range of 10% of the costs of business-as-usual practices. We also see low-carbon businesses reduce their maintenance costs and improve their overall wellness and user experiences.

Policies will underpin success

All this change will not happen in a vacuum. We need governments to set policies and regulations to drive the sustainability agenda and incentivise low-carbon performance of new and existing construction projects. At COP28, as they work to define the objectives that will translate to the ground rules, governments have an opportunity to show the direction and path of changing technical specifications and the needed improvements in the value chain. From the government end comes the catalyst, spreading awareness from middle to executive management, and explaining how capacity-building is needed to make our climate goals a reality. Strong leadership and information sharing will underpin the success of these capacity-building exercises.

Once robust corporate policies are set in place, it will come down to the diligence of managers to augment procedures as envisioned. From the boardroom down to individual projects, a new culture must emerge, pervading scope, principles, responsibilities, and updates. Procurement, energy and water usage, and waste and materials management will all need to be transformed. And if “transformed” evokes images of digitalisation, it is because technology provides an obvious means of streamlining the emissions-reduction program. Data and AI together present an incredible opportunity for advanced analytics to drive the design, delivery, and operation of efficient, sustainable, and smart built assets.

Watch this space

It is possible to get where we need to be on sustainable buildings and infrastructure. But I cannot emphasise enough that a more resilient world is only Mission Possible with the right partnerships – partnerships where the line between client and provider is blurred; partnerships where risks are shared; partnerships where governments continue to lead, where financiers focus on long-term value creation, and where new technological innovations support our vision. As COP28 commences, I – and I’m sure my peers in the construction industry – are optimistic that conference participants will seek to create the frameworks that will enable these partnerships to form and flourish.

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