A greener construction sector? An idea whose time has come

By 2030, more than 250 million people will be added to India’s urban population that will require 700-900 million square meters of new residential and commercial space. In greening the construction sector lies immense opportunities and gains

Updated: Jun 24, 2021 11:07:25 AM UTC
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For most people, the construction sector is not what first comes to mind when we talk about creating an environmentally sustainable future. It is either the energy or utility sector or other core industries such as steel, coal, fertiliser, and others. Yet, globally, the construction sector is estimated to contribute around 40 percent of the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

If we scratch the surface, the reason starts to get more obvious. The construction sector, whether it is urban housing or infrastructure, is an end-user industry that consumes a lot of the materials listed earlier like steel, energy (including temperature control) and cement.

The scale of the challenge
The construction sector is a fairly large umbrella that goes beyond housing and commercial buildings to include the infrastructure sector that will see huge public spending in the coming years. The latest union budget saw gross budgetary allocation towards capital expenditure increase to Rs 5.54 lakh crore or around 34 percent more than what was allocated in 2020-21, thus giving a big push to the investment in road and railway projects. A further Rs 55,000 crore of public spending is also expected to go towards government housing projects.

A 2010 estimate by McKinsey Global Institute had suggested that by 2030, more than 250 million people will be added to India’s urban population that will require 700-900 million square meters of new residential and commercial space.

The bottom line is that the massive spending in building a national infrastructure fit for a future-ready India along with large scale urbanisation is going to add more pressure to the construction sector to ensure the environmental concerns are adequately addressed.

The redeeming factor is that every major sector such as steel, energy and construction have understood their respective roles in creating a greener future. Achieving medium to long term environmental objectives including global commitments—like the Paris Accord of 2015—will mean every sector and their consumers will have to pull their weight. We are already seeing this in energy and steel where renewable alternatives and other ideas like circular economy are becoming increasingly mainstream.

Even traditional sectors like automobile are paying more attention to creating a culture of green mobility with electric vehicles. In each of these sectors, the shift towards more sustainable and responsible behaviours is emerging because of the coordinated efforts of both producers and consumers.

A promising green future
The scope for creating a more sustainable construction sector is quite immense and the use of environment-friendly building materials is an important part of it. Every aspect of a building—from the kind of materials used to the construction process itself—offers immense scope to make it more sustainable. For example, today steel and cement manufacturers have embraced the idea of a circular economy in a big way and are offering a wide portfolio of building materials that leave behind far less carbon footprint.

It is for the construction industry to work closely with these manufacturers to ensure that the final product is environment-friendly. The idea of a circular economy within the construction sector is also catching up in a big way through increased use of recycled building material, a sustainable process that allows us to build more with less input including water, energy, and so on.

A science-driven approach to creating more sustainable building materials is also fast catching in India. It is pushing manufacturers to work closely with the academia through exclusive and outcome-driven partnerships to find solutions.

The consumer side of this story is also equally fascinating. Today’s consumers, in both residential and commercial spaces, are playing an active and vital role in ensuring that their contribution to the carbon footprint is minimal.

From energy efficiency mechanisms backed by renewable energy sources to using greener materials and construction processes, new methods have become USPs for builders because they are now addressing a more enlightened set of consumers. In many ways, this is the vital link that completes the whole cycle of creating a more sustainable construction sector in India.

The idea of creating a greener construction sector in India is still in its infancy but the future certainly looks promising or as the 19th-century French writer Victor Hugo said, 'it’s an idea whose time has come'.

The writer is a CEO of LafargeHolcim India and Managing Director & CEO of Ambuja Cements Ltd

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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