Target net zero: let’s consider the carbon whole truths

The UK’s commitment to deliver net zero by 2050 feels like a long way away as we battle with the COVID-19 crisis.  But when we emerge from this pandemic, undoubtedly and quite rightly our attention will return to sustainability, and the calls for ‘quick win’ solutions to climate change will again come to the fore.   

Politicians across the world and in the UK are promising constituents that they will plant more trees.  You can see the political appeal; trees are attractive, they carry positive associations, support habitat creation and can be sold as part of narrative of conservation, green living and personal wellbeing. I am certainly not against planting more trees, it’s a very fine thing to do.

And I certainly don’t dispute the huge importance of trees, both to society and much more importantly the natural world.  As we look at the transition to net zero and the role of timber in construction, we need to ensure that policy makers and the public alike base their opinions and decisions on the facts about timber and concrete, because there is an awful lot of misperception created around the supposed benefits of timber in construction versus the ‘problems’ some vested interests would have us all believe that concrete creates for our natural world.

Commercial forestry may create a monoculture lacking biodiversity and certainly not the vision many people may have of forests of varied trees teeming with wildlife. Currently only just over 30 per cent of timber used for construction is grown in the UK with consequent imports bringing significant ‘carbon miles', and only around half of the timber in a tree is retained in the harvested wood while a felled tree can take close to 60 years to replace. 

Conversely more than 95% of concrete used in the UK is produced in the UK and contributes significantly to our local, regional and national economies, as well as providing a resilient supply chain. And the many tangible benefits of using concrete in construction are often underestimated. 

Concrete helps construct buildings and homes with a lower environmental impact across their long lifetimes, thanks to superior energy efficiency and reduced maintenance needs. Concrete’s durability, longevity and resilience to things like fire, flooding and rot, are critical characteristics that keep it fit for purpose for generations.

What’s more, concrete is 100 per cent recyclable and can be crushed and reused at the end of its original life. Even less well known is that concrete, like a tree, naturally absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere throughout its life through a process known as ‘carbonation’. 

The UK’s concrete industry has made huge strides in reducing its own carbon output, decarbonising faster than the UK economy as part of its essential role in the transition to a net zero carbon society. The concrete manufacturing industry has been working hard, and through innovation has reduced its carbon emissions produced by 30 per cent since 1990 and this innovation process is continuing at pace. Why not watch our short video Concrete and Carbon by following this link?

The concrete and mineral products industry also works closely with organisations such as Natural England, the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB in its role as a responsible landowner, enhancing biodiversity in and around its sites. For example, between 2009 and 2019 our Mineral Products Association members have planted 1.5 million trees and 100km of hedgerows and have created 8,000 hectares of priority habitats with at least another 11,000 hectares planned. 

All of these factors point to the need for a far more honest, informed and holistic dialogue, so the entire lifecycle of any product can be better considered. In this way, we can all be sure we’re making the right decisions in the push to net zero and beyond.

Chris Leese, UK Concrete Director

Photo by Ales Krivec on Unsplash