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Bringing embodied carbon upfront – spotlight on clean construction

Bringing embodied carbon upfront – spotlight on clean construction

At the start of this crucial decade for climate action, this is the first blog in our series looking at the implications and challenges of transforming the built environment to be net zero across the whole lifecycle.

In the 2010s, great strides were taken towards reducing carbon emissions. We know how to deliver buildings that have net zero emissions in use and nearly 80 cities, states and global corporations have committed to do just that. In the 2020s we must radically scale these solutions so that every building is operating at net zero by the middle of the century. But we must also take on the next challenge – embodied carbon: the emissions released to extract raw materials, process them into construction products and build them into a functioning building, bridge, road or railway and then to pull it all apart again at the end of its useful life.

In 2019, WorldGBC launched our Bringing Embodied Carbon Upfront report with a call to take action on this challenge. We set out a bold vision to eradicate the problem of embodied carbon by 2050:



The report, endorsed by more than 85 companies, governments and third sector organisations from around the world, sets out action pathways for different types of stakeholders from both the supply and demand sides of the value chain.

This first blog in this series considers the role of the contractor and clean construction as a catalyst for change. We bring together the thoughts and opinions of a large multinational contractor (Multiplex), a developer/contractor (Skanska) and construction vehicle/machine manufacturer (Volvo) on the topic of clean construction. Through their opinions and examples we demonstrate that clean construction can be a reality. That innovation is already delivering transformative technologies and how leading companies are collaborating with others in the supply chain to scale solutions. And importantly, why leadership has the power to influence far beyond a company’s direct control.

Innovation is happening across the industry

“Innovations must come from different areas of the industry relating to design and process, digitalisation, materials, biofuels, electrification of construction machinery, new business models and ways of collaboration, procurement practices and requirements.” Magnus Bäärnhielm, Programme, Lead for the Construction Climate Challenge, Volvo Construction Equipment

This is highlighted by the partnership between Skanska and Volvo who have together developed the world’s first ‘emission-free’ quarry, dubbed Electric Site with fossil fuel free machinery that run on electricity. During the test period on a site in Sweden, a 98 percent reduction in carbon emissions has been achieved.

Stephen Smith, Executive Director SHEQ – Europe, Middle East & Canada at Multiplex, points to further benefits of ‘better localised air quality and reduced carbon emissions’. He also highlights how the impacts of temporary buildings on site can be reduced, identifying opportunities to enhance the energy performance of their temporary offices in a white paper entitled Nearly Zero Energy – Construction Site Temporary Office Buildings. Finally, the transition to digital design and construction solutions as a key means to enable better design and achieve net zero embodied carbon.

Lena Hök, Skanska, emphasises this important role of technology in leading smarter thinking around clean construction. Skanska are collaborating with Microsoft and other stakeholders to develop an embodied carbon calculator called EC3, which “will be an open source digital tool, that we hope will be used by the whole industry to understand and reduce carbon.”

“Now we know that there are technical solutions possible, the next step is to ensure a solid business case in order to scale it up. Partnerships like this are critical if we are to reach our target as a Group of becoming carbon neutral by 2045.” Lena Hök, SVP of Sustainability at Skanska


The whole value chain is collaborating

Contractors need support from the rest of the value chain to scale the innovations that are emerging. Smith draws attention to the need for ‘alignment from all actors within the value chain to ensure a collaborative, informed approach and a shared ambition’. This is echoed by Bäärnhielm who cites ‘shared embodied carbon reduction targets and transparency in information sharing along the value chain’ as key aspects where contractors need support from, and indeed can offer support to other parts of the value chain.

Hök argues that clients need to set clearer demands around cutting carbon and points to the leadership role that the public sector can play, with public procurement as a very effective tool to push for sustainable solutions. This can be supported by ambitious policy, as called for in WorldGBC’s report. Cities such as Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm have now pledged to enact regulations or policy to ensure the purchase of biofuels and emission free machinery for the city’s own use, as well as demand fossil-and-emission-free solutions in public procurement and city supported projects.


Influencing by example

Clean construction is just one part of the overall change needed to deliver net zero embodied carbon. As highlighted in WorldGBC’s report, collaboration along the value chain will be key in achieving this. All three of our contributors pointed to the important influence contractors can have both up and downstream.

“Being informed, evidence-based, credible and collaborative is crucial for Multiplex’s ability to lead and influence the value chain.” Stephen Smith, Executive Director SHEQ – Europe, Middle East & Canada at Multiplex

By taking on the role of ‘influencer and enabler’ contractors can raise awareness of zero carbon options, explore innovations and promote the benefits of these choices. Hök explains that whenever possible they advocate to their clients to use low or zero carbon materials, reduce energy needed on sites, reduce the needs of transport and for the energy in operations to switch to fossil free where possible.

Contractors can help foster this partnership between stakeholders, according to Bäärnhielm, in order to fuel the demand for clean construction and for net zero across the whole lifecycle.


Partnerships and collaboration are key to clean construction

Clean construction policy and practice will form a crucial part of the puzzle in enabling the built environment to decarbonise. As we have heard from these industry leaders, one thing stands out as a key part in enabling stakeholders to achieve their goals: partnership and collaboration. We know that the technology in the form of emissions free construction vehicles from the likes of Volvo are already available, the innovation from leading companies such as Skanska and Multiplex is beginning to make a difference and the policy is forming in certain places to guide these goals. All of the pieces of the puzzle are there, and so as an industry we need to come together and foster as much partnership and collaboration between stakeholders as possible in order to implement these solutions quickly and at scale. Indeed, as noted by Bäärnhielm: “Partnership is the new leadership to achieve net zero embodied carbon”.

Any comments and questions related to this can be directed to:

Stephen Richardson is the Head of Projects for Europe Regional Network, World Green Building Council, and Matthew Black is Project Officer for Advancing Net Zero, World Green Building Council.


With thanks to our contributors:

Magnus Bäärnhielm, Programme Lead – Construction Climate Challenge, Volvo Construction Equipment

Lena Hök, SVP Sustainability, Skanska

Stephen Smith, Executive Director SHEQ – Europe, Middle East & Canada, Multiplex


Join the discussion

The series doesn’t stop there!  We‘d love to hear from you. If you’ve had experiences of clean construction or the tensions in making low carbon procurement choices, or have examples of collaboration efforts to share, let us know. You can even write your own blog about your experiences and we may share it.

Find out more about our Advancing Net Zero.