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The Green Transition and the Construction Industry in Europe

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

This is the first of a short series as part of the Erasmus+ Green Circle project looking at the role of the Construction Industry in tackling climate and environmental change, the need for new and higher level skills, innovation in the industry and education and training for construction industry workers.

Recent European Union policy in education has focused on what they call the dual transitions: the move towards digitalisation and the green transition to fight against climate change as part of the so-called  Green Deal. Of course, these two transitions affect all sectors of the economy but one of the critical sectors in such a change is the construction industry.

In 2010, the European strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, Europe 2020, identified education and climate change as a headline action. More recently, in 2019, the EC European Green Deal Communication affirmed that tackling climate and environmental-related challenges are the defining task of this generation. The Green Deal, which has the goal of transforming the EU economy to create a sustainable future, has been described as a growth strategy to transform the EU into a fair and prosperous society, with a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy.

The Construction ecosystem covers the design, construction, maintenance, refurbishment, renovation and demolition of buildings and infrastructure. According to the EU Construction Pact for Skills, the European Union wide construction industry employs 6.1% of the total EU workforce (12.7 million people), and the EU construction ecosystem itself employs approximately 24.9 million people.

Renovation and improving energy efficiency of buildings, is seen as key to the European Green Deal. The construction, use and renovation of buildings require significant amounts of energy and mineral resources (e.g., sand, gravel, cement) that, according to the data received by the European Commission, are responsible – in EU buildings – for about 40% of the EU’s total energy consumption, and for 36% of its greenhouse gas emissions from energy.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic deeply affected the industry and highlighted the importance of mobility and good conditions for construction workers. At the same time the adoption of new green technologies, new materials and new construction processes, is leading to needs for higher skills on, and there is also a resurgence in demand for traditional craft skills. It is estimated that there is a need to upskill and reskill at least 25% of the EU construction workforce (3 million people) in the next 5 years.

Ideas on how this might be achieved include including by building strong partnerships, monitoring occupational supply and demand chains, and anticipating future knowledge and skills needs. The sector also aims to attract more young people and women to the construction sector, promoting a culture of lifelong learning.

The United Nations Environment Programme has also identified construction as a priority sector. According to the 2022 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction, in 2022 CO2 emissions from buildings operations reached an all-time high of around 10 GtCO2, around a 5% increase from 2020 and 2% higher than the previous peak in 2019. The report recommends actions for policymakers and decision makers, including that the sector should “replace linear, non-renewable, toxic material processes with sustainable renewable materials that can sequester carbon and be managed sustainably over their life cycles. In parallel, for materials that cannot (yet) be replaced, their use and their carbon footprint should be reduced as much as possible”.

The construction industry plays a pivotal role in the transition towards a circular economy. Historically characterized by high material consumption and waste generation, this sector presents significant opportunities for implementing circular principles, which can lead to substantial environmental economic, and social benefits.

The construction sector is one of the largest consumers of raw materials and is responsible for approximately 30-40% of global carbon emissions. It also generates considerable waste, much of which ends up in landfills (UN Environment Programme, (2019). Integrating circular economy principles into construction involves designing buildings with a longer life span, promoting the use of sustainable materials, and facilitating the reuse and recycling of building components. Emphasizing modular and adaptable building designs enables easier refurbishment, repurposing, and deconstruction. The use of sustainable materials, such as recycled concrete and timber, reduces the environmental footprint. Strategies like lean construction techniques and prefabrication can significantly reduce waste generated on construction sites. Effective waste management systems, emphasizing the segregation and recycling of construction waste, are also crucial (Ajayi et al., 2017). The EU’s policy initiatives, such as the Circular Economy Action Plan, encourage the adoption of circular practices in construction. These include incentives for using recycled materials and regulations for waste management (European Commission, 2020). Adopting circular economy practices in construction can lead to cost savings, new market opportunities, and a reduction in environmental impact. Circular strategies can extend the life cycle of materials, reduce landfill waste, and lower carbon emissions (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2019). Several EU projects exemplify circular economy principles in construction. For instance, the Horizon 2020 BAMB (Buildings As Material Banks) project focuses on developing materials passports and reversible building design to facilitate the dynamic and circular use of building materials. The integration of circular economy principles in the construction industry is essential for the Green transition. It offers a pathway to reduce environmental impact, foster sustainable innovation, and create economic opportunities. By embracing these principles, the construction sector can transform into a more sustainable, efficient, and resilient industry, aligned with the EU’s sustainability goals.

Coming up next: What are the problems in the Construction Industry in Europe?

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