skip to content

Laing O'Rourke Centre for Construction Engineering and Technology


Understanding the landscape of decarbonising construction

Benefits to industry:

  • Understanding the breadth of topics under the umbrella of ‘decarbonisation’
  • Guidance on key issues and challenges to be addressed
  • Identify relevant initiatives or resources that can support action

The UK has a legally binding requirement to achieve net zero by 2050, with an interim target to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990. The built environment is a significant contributor to these national GHG emissions, both from the provision of infrastructure and services required for the development of society (new-build and retrofit), as well as from the ongoing energy to heat and power buildings and infrastructure.

Whilst the last few years have seen a significant increase in consideration of carbon emissions across the construction sector, the broad spectrum of stakeholders and range of types of projects and activities that comprise the industry, together with the long history of reliance on traditional methods with carbon-intense materials such as concrete and steel, makes construction a particularly complex sector to decarbonise.

All this activity, together with the broad range of avenues for addressing the decarbonisation of construction, can be overwhelming, and it can be challenging to understand the landscape of the topic and then know what action to take. This creates uncertainty about how each stakeholder can drive change within their sphere of influence and what will be complementary and working in synergy to drive the industry towards the changes necessary for a low-carbon society. This results in inconsistent actions and targets by organisations in the sector and a lack of holistic system thinking that could result in incompatibility or unintended consequences.

Capitalising on existing knowledge

The next decade is the most critical for achieving reductions, which means we need to be capitalising on what we already know, focusing on the technology we already have to inform actions to take today. However, the complexity of the challenge and the overwhelming amount of information available can be bewildering. Consequently, individuals and organisations can spend considerable time and expense unnecessarily repeating the work of others and not capitalising on existing knowledge or lessons learnt. It is important to ensure we can identify key sources of knowledge, drawing on the expertise already developed and driving the industry forward to collectively reach the net-zero target.

Mapping the landscape of decarbonising construction

The work on mapping the landscape of decarbonising construction has taken a three-pronged approach in seeking to provide clarity on the subject:

  1. Mapping topics and themes: this mindmap provides an overview of how reducing carbon emissions is being addressed across the full spectrum of the built environment. This highlights the work happening in many fields, which can seem quite narrow and unrelated, and shows how these fit together holistically to address all the aspects that need to be decarbonised (from embodied to operational to organisations, etc.)
  2. Academic research across the University of Cambridge: Using the themes and topics identified, this map provides a visual and interactive way of investigating the different research centres and academics across the University who are engaged with research that in some way seeks to contribute to reducing emissions in the built environment
  3. Landscape map of industry: This extends the mapping exercise to the wider construction industry and provides an overview of activities, initiatives, task forces, resources etc. The map acts as a ‘gateway’ and directs users to organisations or information that may be useful in their understanding of decarbonising construction.

Removing barriers

Through upskilling the sector and building on the collective action already underway, we can use our influence to address our areas of impact within the landscape of decarbonising construction. It will clarify to decision-makers and individuals at all levels and stakeholders of the built environment what action they need to take within their organisations/projects to ensure we can reduce carbon at the rate needed.