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Can contractors be green?

Sustainability - Scientists have proven that climate change is escalating fast. Is now the time that construction finally takes sustainability seriously? Andrew Mylius reports.

The construction industry is on the front line of tackling climate change, says Skanska chief executive David Fison.

'Construction spend is £100bn a year or 8% of UK GDP. We use 6t of building materials per person per year, 2.5t of which ends up as waste. Sixty per cent of all the timber used in the UK goes into construction - in the past 20 minutes 5ha of forest has been cut down, never to be replaced.

The buildings we put up guzzle 52% of the nation's energy.

'If we don't get [our environmental performance] right, the construction industry automatically becomes the UK's worst environmental offender.' Fison was one of the speakers at an ICE conference on sustainable procurement last week. Sharing the stage was Sustainable Development Commission chairman Jonathon Porritt, who forcefully made the case for action by drawing on last week's report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The IPCC's conclusions were stark. It is now 90% certain that climate change is being caused by emissions from human activities and that as a result sea levels will rise by up to 43mm by 2100, he said.

'The IPCC is a unique scientic process. There is no other forum in the world where heads of government are presented with all of the most serious academic research on climate change from all over the world - research that has been rigorously peer reviewed - and asked to reach a consensus. They have deliberated over every word.

'So the debate is over. There is no room for scepticism, ' Porritt claimed.

But saving the planet need not cost the Earth. Porritt added that in the initial phases adapting business to limit its environmental impact need not hurt. Contractor Kier has clamped down on materials waste and its use of water and electricity over the past year, and has made small but worthwhile cost savings, conrms design co-ordinator Tony Gaffney.

Contractor Carillion has been pursuing the dual goals of environmental and commercial efciency for some years and has converted much of its car fleet from petrol to liquid petroleum gas (LPG), which has lower cost and lower emissions.

'There are some activities that don't help your bottom line - they're cost neutral, ' Gaffney concedes. 'But that's not a reason for not doing them.

We're increasingly looking at softer aspects: at improving the quality of life for our staff and stakeholders.' Kier is operating car-sharing schemes, cutting down on paper use, turning off office lights and computers. 'We have a form on our intranet that allows staff to share ideas about improving their home and work environments. We're in an age when there's mounting social pressure to behave responsibly, ' says Gaffney.

'People are becoming more environmentally aware and as one of the main contractors in the UK we want to keep up with that expectation.' Gaffney says that the move is also about keeping in step with the firm's clients. 'We do a lot of work with developers who are keen on environmentally friendly design and construction.'

Investors too are becoming interested in the environmental performance of their buildings.

'Increasingly investors are looking at the long-term value of their assets, not just the initial construction cost.

'They are starting to anticipate possible future environmental legislation, and want their buildings future-proofed. They are starting to realise that they will be able to charge more for buildings that perform to high environmental standards, ' says Allan Jones, chief executive of the London Climate Change Agency - a body set up by London mayor Ken Livingstone to implement a new energy and climate change policy across the capital.

Kier has recently gained ISO14001 certication. This is a universal standard for environmental management operated by the International Standards Organisation. 'It puts in place an environmental policy that addresses environmental rules and regulations affecting your business, ' explains Gary Holland, technical director of Isys, a rm that helps construction companies win accreditation.

Gaffney says that Kier will soon start demanding that its suppliers and subcontractors gain ISO14001 accreditation.

'It's a form of quality assurance.

It shows that the people in your supply chain are behaving responsibly.' Kier is just one of a growing number of major contractors already with ISO14001 certication. This will drive up the overall environmental performance of the construction industry, notes Holland.

'Regardless of where you start, the obligation to do better every year dictates that you will become constantly more resource efficient, even if you do the bare minimum. And in practice we're seeing most companies wanting to impress their clients and pushing hard at improving.' Former Carillion chief executive, now chairman of energy generator International Power, Sir Neville Simms notes that contractors are in a powerful position to influence the environmental performance of buildings and infrastructure through design and build contracts or on private finance initiative projects.

'Clients need to start demanding environmental performance and setting targets, but contractors are in an increasingly strong position to influence their clients and help write the design brief, ' says Simms, who chairs the government's Sustainable Procurement Task Force.

He urges that projects' environmental performance should be rated using the BRE Environmental Assessment Method or Civil Engineering Environmental Quality Assessment to establish standards against which industry performance can be improved.

For most contractors, improving the plight of the planet involves fairly simple measures, says Fison.

'We audit where our timber comes from; we like to have goods delivered to site without packaging, which always goes straight to tip; we want to manufacture more through factories, where you can get waste down to 1% from the 10% you get on site; we segregate waste on site; we try to use recycled materials where we can. . . Sustainability is eminently do-able.

'The trouble is, we don't do it every time.' Skanska's challenge is to standardise environmental performance across all its sites, Fison says, and to establish performance standards against which each project can be judged.

He urges colleagues not to get bogged down in establishing procedures for 'greening' company performance though.

'We need to simplify as much as possible and run as fast as our legs can go. Get started, make mistakes, learn from them, do better next time.'

Government's sustainability targets % reduction in carbon emissions by 2020 75 %of waste recycled by 2020 25 %reduction in waste generated by 2020 25 %reduction in water consumption by 2020 A carbon neutral office estate by 2020 30 %increase in energy efficiency per square metre by 2020 Source: HM Treasury:

Transforming Public Procurement Jan 2007

Why climate change matters 'Climate change represents disruption on a scale far larger than that of the great wars and the global economic depression of the rst half of the 20 th century, ' warns Jonathan Porritt.

'We're looking at the death of nature. Deforestation, over shing, the build up of toxics in the environment, water stress and shortages, loss of biodiversity. . . All of these are happening already, but climate change will make them all much, much worse.' The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change anticipates a temperature increase of 1.8°C to 4°C over the next century.

'That 1.8°C will occur simply as a result of CO 2 already in the atmosphere, ' says Porritt.

'The worst case is 6.4°C. That'll be the end of civilisation as we know it. It'll end everything we've worked towards over the past 2,000 years.' Porritt slams the current targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 60% by 2050. 'A 60% reduction in CO 2 emissions is inadequate - 550ppM is too much', warns Porritt: 'A 3°C temperature rise would be as near meltdown as damn it. It could trigger irreversible climate change.

'We need an 80% to 85% reduction by 2050 to achieve 450ppM. I don't want to undersell this: it's the biggest challenge that has ever, ever been undertaken.'

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