Nature and construction
How can the construction industry take a proactive and regenerative approach to nature and biodiversity?
The UK’s construction industry grew by value to its highest level on record in 2019 – the last full year preceding the COVID-19 pandemic.
This was powered by private new housing, though growth was driven by both public sector and private sector work. Overall, total new construction work was worth £118,977 million in 2019, representing a 5.2% increase year on year. [Source]
As an industry, construction is disjointed, fragmented and unused to collaborative thinking and workstyles on join initiatives. Furthermore, current business models do not incentivise genuine change in environmental approaches.
Yet it is hugely reliant on natural resources for its raw materials.
Timber, gravel, sand, iron ore, and rocks are all major materials needed for the construction industry and the production of these materials can impact heavily on biodiversity.
Its need for land also has significant impact. Land use can have both direct impact on the destruction of habitats and more subtle effects on biodiversity, such as disturbance and fragmentation.
In addition, impacts on protected species at designated sites are significant. Meanwhile, offsite effects of development on adjacent areas are of increasing significance. [Source]
Infrastructural expansion is driven more by demographic trends than by market forces.
With the global population expected to hit five billion urban dwellers by 2030, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization expects an additional 100 million hectares of land to be required for housing, industries, transport networks, and other infrastructures – such as power plants, transmission lines, dams, tunnels, and bridges – by 2050. [Source]
To address the significant challenge to biodiversity this pressure presents at a national level, positive action is needed by governmental, the industry, and individual businesses.
Challenges facing nature
What’s being done
Change is coming.
At a governmental level, the Environment Bill now going through parliament sets out the mechanism by which biodiversity net gain from development is to operate.
Under this legislation, planning authorities will have a duty to implement the requirement for developers to deliver biodiversity net gain (BNG) on all developments covered by the 1990 Town & Country Planning Act.
A biodiversity gain plan must be submitted with planning application. Developers will have to set aside funding to maintain and manage biodiversity for at least 30 years after the completion of the development.
At an industry level, a fundamental mindset shift is now needed as the industry’s current, fragmented state and existing business models mean the foundations for genuine transition for the better cannot be retrofitted.
Already, customers are taking note. People are looking for more sustainable, low carbon homes. Local authorities are asking for support to prioritise nature and green spaces within the houses they maintain.
Meanwhile, more sophisticated clients are setting requirements for biodiversity net gain, while others now actively seek partners with their own ecosystem strategies.
The UK construction industry is already working collaboratively to prioritise and accelerate positive action on climate change.
The Construction Leadership Council, for example, is committed to a green recovery post-COVID-19. The Construction 2025 Strategy and the Construction Sector Deal, meanwhile, already includes a commitment to reduce carbon emissions from the built environment by 50% and delivering this is a crucial step in the journey towards net zero carbon [source].
Elsewhere, inspiring developments are occurring. Active urban reafforestation and more water-sensitive design to make the Australian city of Canberra more livable and climate-responsive is just one powerful example [source].
Now is the time to pick up biodiversity as well as carbon emissions.
By reimagining, innovating more and thinking bigger, the UK construction industry can fully deliver for its customers, society, and the natural environment on its climate change commitments.
Explore case studies
The path forward
Over and beyond the moral imperative for all industries – including construction – to help achieve a nature positive world, investing in biodiversity makes good business sense.
As an industry hugely reliant on natural resources, it safeguards construction businesses’ future – the sustainability of supply chain is therefore business-critical.
It’s a practical mitigation tool for net greenhouse gas emission reduction.
It helps build a good reputation, which ultimately helps win better work, facilitating future economic success and further scope lies in offering sustainable construction as part of schemes such as regeneration housing developments.
It also helps attract, retain and build loyalty among employees, whose interest in health, wellbeing and the natural environment as grown in recent years and been accelerated further by the coronavirus pandemic. It is an opportunity to increase market share.
Building and infrastructure businesses can take a variety of positive actions, from quick wins to longer-term efforts. Many of these actions require collaboration – with other business, across industries, and with government.
Examples of different types of action are showcased here – not as a comprehensive checklist, but inspiration for further positive action. Effective action begins with an understanding of the challenges facing nature.
Explore actions for nature
- Currently more than 90% of man-made pressure on biodiversity is attributable to the operations of four major value chains: infrastructure, energy, food, and fashion. 
- A dramatic reduction in carbon emissions linked to the built environment is required, as these account for around 40% of the UK’s total. 
- The value of new work construction work in Great Britain grew to £118,977 million in 2019 – up 5.2% year on year – to its highest level in this series since records began. 
The construction and infrastructure sectors are well positioned to take a proactive approach in embracing the challenge created by climate change, reducing the impact of carbon, and embracing a nature positive approach across our projects. We are making positive steps, raising awareness, and actively driving a reduction in carbon emissions across our businesses. We now must turn our focus to the other side of the equation by encouraging biodiversity and embracing the opportunity to be nature net positive.
Whilst constructing to create a more sustainable future, our industry can be demanding on the environment that surrounds us. In order to support growing populations and demographic shifts, we require more land for the construction of new homes, workplaces and for the infrastructure that supports them. We must leave a positive legacy through the whole life cycle of these developments by implementing biodiversity net gain plans for our proposed projects, to ensure we leave areas in a healthy, diverse state that encourages the adoption of habitats in the years to come.
Our industry utilises large amounts of natural resources aggregates, water, timber, fuel, etc. we must ensure we manage the risk of overexploitation of these resources, recognising that they are limited in their volume, and we need to actively reduce waste and seek out and propose alternative products. Where we are sourcing these products outside of the UK or where they are part of our extended supply chain ensuring sustainability and transparency on sourcing is an important consideration.
John Murphy, CEO Murphy Group