The greatest threat to the UK demolition status quo comes not from the move away from diesel fuel. It comes not from a shortage of skilled workers and delivery drivers. Nor does it come in the form of an influx of competition from allied industries or from overseas. And it doesn’t come from the findings of an interminable investigation into alleged collusion within the sector.
No, the greatest threat to the future of demolition comes from the buildings of the past and how their composition is interpreted in the present.
That threat is known as embodied carbon and it is a phrase we all need to understand because it has the potential to alter the demolition landscape.
So what is embodied carbon? Well, in a nutshell, making steel, concrete and bricks for buildings creates a lot of carbon, with concrete alone causing eight percent of global emissions. Engineering giant Arup calculated around 50 percent of the whole-life emissions of a building could come from the carbon emitted during construction and demolition.
When a building is demolished, it is suggested that the embodied carbon will have been wasted; and new construction will then repeat this cycle.
As a result, climate experts are urging ministers to make it hard for developers to demolish buildings without first exploring ways to refurbish and extend them.
The chairman of the government’s advisory climate change committee, Lord Deben, says the government had been slow to accept this reversal of established thinking and ministers had not had “the will and the clout to develop these policies”.
“We need to think differently,” he said. “It’s not acceptable to pull buildings down like this. We have to learn to make do and mend.”
Lord Deben believes there should be a planning law to stop giving permission for demolitions, adding: “We are simply not going to win the battle against climate change unless we fight on every front.”
Business minister Lord Callanan told delegates at a recent conference: “We’re in the final stages of building our Heat and Building Strategy at the moment. This is one of the areas we want to look at.”
Experts said one simple step would be to require firms planning large scale developments to calculate the total impact on the climate before starting work – something that is already mandatory in several countries.
Such a shift would fall thankfully short of the total moratorium mooted by the Royal Institute of British Architects recently. But the need to calculate the lifetime carbon impact of a building would – at best – slow planning and – at worst – could see some developments shelved entirely. That could have a huge and negative effect upon both the demolition and construction sectors.
And what a bitter irony. The demolition industry has placed itself at the very forefront of environmental stewardship. It has done more in the field of materials recycling and reuse than just about any other industry. But amidst a global climate crisis, there is no such thing as “enough” when it comes to environmental protection.
So when governments from around the world meet in Glasgow at the end of this month for the COP26 climate conference, the subject of embodied carbon is likely to be a key topic of conversation.
And, with a sweep of a pen, ministers seeking a headline-grabbing quick win could easily mandate a planning shift that could alter the very fabric of demolition as we know it.