The construction industry has been and still is playing a big role in climate change, pollution and the use of natural, limited resources. The good news is: just as we are a part of a problem, we are a part of the solution. Learn what are the UN Sustainable Development Goals and how can the construction industry contribute to achieving them and making the world a better place!
“Sustainability” seems to be one of the most important themes in the discussion about our future and the actions we are undertaking. Although we hear it everywhere, we can’t perceive it as just another buzzword. Why? Because unsustainable growth during the past decades led us into the mess we are in now - climate crisis, unequal distribution of wealth and resources and so on.
Sustainable development is the only way forward if we want Earth and humanity to have any kind of future. And if we do it well - hopefully, a better future.
The UN recognised the need to establish a trajectory for sustainable development and set goals we should all strive to achieve by 2030. Let’s talk about how the construction industry can support these goals and why it is so important that we recognise the role of our sector in making a better future possible.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of 17 interconnected global goals, adopted in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly as a “universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity”.
The 17 Goals:
The SDGs are interdependent, which means they recognise that actions in each area will affect outcomes in others. They promote development that balances social, economic and environmental sustainability.
In 2017, the UN General Assembly has adopted a resolution that identifies specific targets for each goal (169 targets, to be exact) along with indicators used to measure progress of each of them (you can find more information on each goal and its targets on the UN official website).
Various tools have been introduced to track progress towards goals to make data accessible and easily understood. For example, you can check it on the open-access SDG Tracker, which presents up-to-date data across all available indicators, using the official UN statistics.
Now, as we are all on the same page when it comes to the definition of the Sustainable Development Goals, let's talk about why it is so important to understand the role of the construction industry in this context.
The world is facing one of the biggest, if not THE BIGGEST, challenges since homo sapiens had appeared on the surface of our planet - the climate crisis. Additionally, we are dealing with pollution and shrinking supplies of fossil fuels, which still power many spheres of our existence and actions.
Sadly, the construction industry has a considerable share in it - according to the International Energy Agency, it is responsible for 39% of global energy and process-related emissions and for 36% of worldwide energy demand! The sector also accounts for 40% of drinking water pollution and 23% of air pollution!
But the good news is that we are not only part of the problem. We can also be part of the solution! According to the research paper “On the Role of Construction in Achieving the SDGs”, even 44% of the SDGs targets depend on construction and real estate activities!
Let’s look at the specific goals and targets the construction industry can and should support!
The research on construction’s impact on achieving the SDGs shows that the sector is directly connected to goals number 6, 7 and 11, including having a direct effect on 80% of the 11th SDG’s targets. Let’s give them a closer look!
Globally, one in three people does not have access to safe drinking water, while two in five do not have a basic hand-washing facility although WHO clearly states that “handwashing is one of the most effective actions you can take to reduce the spread of pathogens and prevent infections”.
Water is scarce in many parts of the world, and in many areas, we can see increasing desertification caused by climate change.
Waste-water reclaim technologies can reduce our dependence on fresh water on a large scale. New construction projects must include waste-water reclamation systems like greywater reclamation or dual piping to ensure that water from the residential and industrial buildings is recycled and reused for flushing, industrial processes and irrigation.
Many new projects also introduce rainwater harvesting systems to further reduce the general building water wastage.
According to the UN, 13% of the world population still lacks access to modern electricity. Additionally, the COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated that we need to improve the reliability of energy access in health facilities and first responders, as it is directly connected to saving lives and managing crisis situations.
Construction professionals play a great role in bringing reliable and affordable energy to people around the world. First of all, by decreasing energy consumption in newly built facilities. Smart and green buildings are becoming more and more popular, but we need to ensure that energy-saving systems like the efficient lightning design or HVAC systems will become a norm in all parts of the world.
We must focus on increasing the share of renewable, clean energy sources in global energy sources, especially in the least developed countries. Among available renewable sources, solar energy has been proven so far to be the most commonly available. As the cost of solar panels is going down and the efficiency increases, it seems that solar energy can be a viable solution in most parts of the world.
It is estimated that by 2030 (the ending year of the SDGs agenda), even 60% of the world population will be living in cities. Cities are a source for great economic growth, but unfortunately, they also account for almost 70% of all carbon emissions. Moreover, rapid urbanisation has led to many city communities having to face insufficient, overburdened infrastructure and services.
As buildings constitute the cities, green buildings, which introduce the solutions connected to energy and water efficiency, are key to making cities sustainable. Moreover, we must focus on delivering healthy buildings. As people in urban areas spend even up to 95% of their time indoors (since the start of the pandemic, it might have gone up even higher), it is crucial to pay attention to the impact that buildings have on our well-being.
The elements of a healthy building include good air quality achieved with proper ventilation and filtration systems, sustainable thermal control, making the most use of natural lighting and providing high-quality artificial lightning, ergonomic interior design and access to nature.
Sustainable cities should also include infrastructure that will help tackle extreme weather conditions experienced in different parts of the world due to climate change - from flood protection to keeping ventilation corridors and green areas in case of heatwaves.
As previously stated, the SDGs are interdependent, which means that construction actions will have a more or less direct impact on other goals:
Goal 13: Turning to renewable, emission-free energy sources, water-saving technologies and sustainable buildings and cities will have a great impact on the 13th SDG: Climate action targets.
On that note, the sector should also reduce the carbon emissions of the construction process itself. If you want to learn how you can do it, check out our article on ways to reduce carbon footprint.
Goal 12: Another environmentally-friendly thing to do is reduce the amount of waste from construction by either improving materials management or ensuring recycling, which is in line with the 12th SDG: Sustainable Consumption and Production.
Goal 9: At the same time, we should strive to introduce more sustainable construction materials and better new green solutions, which would be a great motor for technology and innovation development. This aligns with SDG 9: Industry, Innovation & Infrastructure, which calls for “building resilient infrastructure, promoting sustainable industrialisation and fostering innovation”.
Goal 8: Last but not least, the need for new construction projects means that the construction sector will continue to create jobs also in the least developed areas (SDG 8: Decent Work & Economic Growth - promoting inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all).
Many aspects of the construction process can become more sustainable thanks to optimisation. Digital tools like construction management software can make project execution easier and more eco-friendly. For example, better scheduling and asset management helps you ensure that the machinery, energy and transportation are used most efficiently. And having precise information about purchase orders and materials that you already have prevents the risk of ordering new redundant materials.
Also, using Building Information Modeling (BIM) can greatly enhance building’s design efficiency and productivity on-site by reducing errors and therefore reducing wasted time, materials, energy and money. It can also provide the most accurate information for the best maintenance of the finished buildings.
Construction has had an immense impact on our reality, economy and the quality of our lives since the beginning of human civilisation. We have to continue recognising the industry's role in ensuring that we build healthy, sustainable lives for future generations and cooperate among different specialists to act towards the common goals of building a better world.
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