‘Carbon blindness is a big issue across the industry’

Modus meets ZERO Next, a group of young industry professionals who say targets for net zero carbon by 2050 are too slow and much more urgent action is needed


  • Mark Williams

09 January 2023

Young people leaving desolate land towards futuristic city

Illustration by Rune Fisker

ZERO Next is a network of young industry professionals advocating immediate action on decarbonisation in the construction sector. They say policy roadmaps that set out net zero targets for 2050 are too slow and much bigger steps must be taken now.

In fact, the group gave a talk at Digital Construction Week in London entitled ‘F*ck Roadmaps’ – such is their strength of feeling on the matter. It was a title designed to grab the attention and make their point that roadmaps to decarbonisation are well intentioned but far too slow.

The group ZERO Next is part of ZERO, a larger organisation researching ways to achieve a net zero carbon construction sector. Modus spoke to ZERO Next’s co-leads to find out what the group’s aims are and how it hopes to achieve them. They are Tasha Greenfield, design coordinator at Natural Building Systems; Owen Jackson, safety, health, environment and sustainability coordinator at Thomas Sinden; and Giulia Papi, marketing manager at Inndex.

Tasha Greenfield

Owen Jackson headshot

Owen Jackson

Giulia Papi headshot

Giulia Papi

What is ZERO Next and how did it begin?

Tasha: I initially got involved with ZERO and went to events they were running. But I would be sitting in a leadership discussion with lots of industry terms being used that I hadn’t heard before. I’d only been working for 18 months at that point and felt out of my depth. I had plenty of ideas but didn’t feel like I could contribute to the discussions in a meaningful way.

We talked about setting up ZERO Next, as a separate space within ZERO for people who are new to the industry. We meet every two weeks and talk about our employers and issues in the construction industry. Young professionals might not have as much experience as those who’ve been in the industry longer but it’s still really important to enable those people to have a voice and feel confident in their own opinions.

Giulia: We don’t want to preach and tell people what to do, but instead say we’re here and we have an opinion that is valid, so please listen to us.

Can you give me an example of some of the climate change policy currently in place that is too slow?

Owen: At the top level, UK government policy is not where it needs to be. And business roadmaps often just fit into that policy and say ‘net zero by 2050’. By 2050 we may well get down to net zero but it’s the damage done in the meantime we need to consider. If you act now and decrease emissions rapidly rather than doing it gradually over time you’d save so much carbon and so much damage from happening.

Look at 2050 targets in another way – you have nearly 30 years to generate emissions for free before you have to stop. That really loads on the damage we’ll be doing for another 30 years. Roadmap to 2050 targets give some people a policy-based way out.

Take The Line in Saudi Arabia, for example. If we were really serious about making massive carbon reductions now, The Line wouldn’t be a project we’d be considering doing because of the sheer amount of resources needed to create it.

What’s your plan for addressing these issues and encouraging more rapid change?

Tasha: We are creating a manifesto, a plan of where we want to be in 10 years and our first statement for this manifesto is that carbon will be valued higher than cost.

Another of the key themes we talk about is education and the skills shortage in the industry. At the current rate, in 25 years there will be no bricklayers left, no one wants to be a bricklayer any more. We need to work out ways of doing things differently and make it more attractive to the next generation.

Giulia: We want construction to become the most attractive industry to work in, where students and apprentices are all looking to start a career. The industry needs to market itself better, it doesn’t talk about all the work that goes on around the physical construction of a building. There are so many tech companies emerging in the sector.

“There’s not a great carbon literacy in business and among the public” Owen Jackson, ZERO Next

What is holding the construction industry back from faster change?

Owen: We’re still massively reliant on fossil fuels and have been ever since we realised that we need to take action on climate change. Some economies have made progress on decarbonising their fuel systems, the Scandinavian countries are a good example.

Upfront costs are an issue too, because cost is often valued more highly than carbon. To reduce carbon in a project takes money because the technology needs to be more advanced or the materials need to be more carefully sourced. The methods involved may require more funding at the start and the benefits over the lifetime of a building aren’t always considered because what matters to businesses right now is having adequate cashflow.

There’s also not a great carbon literacy in business and among the public. If there’s no real agreement on what carbon means or a measurable unit of carbon that can be valued that works universally, it can be hard to make an informed opinion about a project and understand the impact it will have.

That’s an interesting point. How important is it to be able to measure carbon in a universally standard way?

Giulia: Carbon blindness is a big issue across the industry. If you can’t measure, you can’t manage and if you can’t manage you can’t change. That’s where the digital construction side of things steps in. There are so many tools we have that are not being properly exploited. But there are lots of start-ups with industry knowledge who do know how to tackle the carbon problem.

Are people you talk to in the construction industry open to radical change?

Owen: It’s a risk-averse industry and it can be tough to change the tried and tested ways. There’s not a lot of desire to take risks on new technologies when the old ones are proven and cost effective. It’s a tough sell.

We still build with the same type of concrete, same pouring and groundwork as we did 30-40 years ago. We met someone at a workshop event who owns a concrete pouring company and was inspired to change because three employees came to him and raised their concerns about the company’s environmental impact. He listened to them and learned more for himself. Everyone’s got a different motivation to change.

Tasha: The decisions to change in the construction industry can cost a lot more than other industries. A café might switch to organic milk at a certain cost but if a construction company tries to do something sustainable in the way it builds you could be looking at millions of pounds.

Giulia: Many roadmaps to sustainability are not as scalable to construction as they are to other sectors. Construction is the biggest global industry and generates around £11.5tn a year. Green changes might bring added costs that companies aren’t willing to face yet because they don’t have the right incentives.

“We are creating a manifesto, a plan of where we want to be in 10 years and our first statement for this manifesto is that carbon will be valued higher than cost.” Tasha Greenfield, ZERO Next

Might some people argue that there is an element of youthful impatience in what ZERO Next is asking for?

Giulia: We’re not asking for anything now that hasn’t been asked for since 2015 and the Paris Agreement. Our demands aren’t wildly ambitious, they are tangible but it needs a change in mindset. The first step is starting to measure so you know what your baseline emissions and targets are.

There is a degree of seniority among decision makers in the industry and most of them are going to be retired by 2050, so there is a lack of motivation to effect change immediately.

Tasha: If we stand here and say ‘here’s one reasonable target and here’s another reasonable target’ we’re not going to get anyone’s attention. We’ve got to be ambitious. We recognise our aim that carbon will be more important than cost may not happen by 2030, but we need to start thinking differently and having those conversations now.


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