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What is net zero?

Science has shown that human production of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, increases the extent of global warming. Reducing these emissions is key to preventing devastating climate change.

To tackle the issue, the UK became the first major economy to commit to becoming net zero by 2050 (2045 in Scotland).

But what is net zero, and what does it mean for the construction industry?

Net zero explained

Net zero means that any carbon emissions we create are balanced (cancelled out) by taking the same amount out of the atmosphere. We’ll reach net zero when the amount of carbon emissions we add is no more than the amount taken away.

The best way to achieve net zero is by reducing emissions as much as possible. Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) are released when we burn oil, gas and coal for our homes, factories and transport. These gases cause rising temperatures and changing climates by trapping the sun’s energy in our atmosphere.

So, we need to reduce our reliance on them. But not all emissions can be reduced to zero. We can balance out those that remain by removing an equivalent amount.

Planting trees – which absorb CO2 and release oxygen – is an inexpensive example of this. Solar and wind power can replace fossil fuels. Carbon capture and storage is another solution, but the technology is still in its early days.

Net zero allows for some emissions to be above zero as long as they are balanced out elsewhere. The net zero emissions target enables some areas to operate with positive rather than negative emissions.

This allows for sectors where it would be difficult to reach net zero emissions, such as construction, to operate while being offset by other sectors where it’s easier to reduce emissions or find alternatives for energy consumption.

What net zero means for construction

The construction industry will still play a big role in helping the UK reach net zero, though.

Construction and the built environment is a major source of carbon emissions, representing around 40% of the UK’s total output.

The UK Green Building Council estimates that up to 95% of emissions from the built environment over the next 30 years could come from existing buildings. Much of the industry’s effort to decarbonise will therefore be on retrofitting existing building stock.

The Government’s Heat and Buildings Strategy set a goal to decarbonise the heat and buildings sector by between 47% to 62% by 2035, pledging £3.9 billion in funding. Natural gas boilers will be phased out, and heat pumps and other low carbon heating systems will be installed.

With around 29 million buildings requiring some retrofit work, opportunities for construction employers are abound. As our Net Zero and Construction: Perspective and Pathways report noted, skilled, well paid occupations such as energy assessors, retrofit coordinators and insulation installers will be in particularly high demand.

New buildings will also need to be highly energy efficient, as well as being constructed using less carbon-intensive materials. How they’re constructed is important, too. Modern methods of construction, such as offsite manufacturing of buildings, will become more common.

How will construction meet net zero?

It’s clear that net zero commitments will have big implications for construction. Our Building Skills for Net Zero report predicts the industry needs an additional 350,000 workers by 2028 to create a lasting transformation.

There’s reason to be positive, though. Construction employers recognise the need to decarbonise – with three quarters saying it’s important or very important to them or their company. 70% have a good understanding of how they may need to adapt their business, while 90% are willing to retrain if necessary.

To meet the 2050 net zero target, the report outlines what is needed:

  • A widespread programme of upskilling and reskilling to improve capabilities in areas such as project management, system design and digitalisation
  • Constant re-assessment of future demand as the industry transforms
  • Training programmes and courses to support workers through lifelong learning so they can continue to retrain and upskill as demands evolve
  • A combined approach of pathways – hydrogen deployment through the grid, fabric first retrofit, heat pumps, heat networks and onsite energy.

CITB and net zero

Net zero is at the top of our agenda. In our recently published Business Plan, it forms a key plank of addressing future skills needs – making sure employers and the workforce are well prepared.

In the words of our CEO, Tim Balcon, “decarbonisation is a major challenge - and opportunity - for the construction industry. A green-skilled workforce will be vital as the UK strives to achieve the Government’s net zero targets.”

That’s why we are working with local and national Governments, the Construction Leadership Council, employers and others across the industry to map what skills are needed and where.

We are developing and reviewing training standards, supporting new qualifications such as the Level 5 Diploma in Retrofit Coordination and Risk Management, and reviewing new pathways from Further Education to employment.

We are also launching a net zero action plan in September 2022 to provide clarity to the industry. The key to achieving net zero is collaboration. So we need to continue working closely together to achieve lasting change.