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Time for New Zealand to cut emissions from its construction sector and get its quality up to scratch

Wellington, New Zealand. Photo by Jil Beckmann on Unsplash

In response to a recent report highlighting New Zealand’s problem with embodied carbon in construction, the head of a metal industry organisation Nick Collins has suggested carbon is only part of the story and that a wider approach is needed to clean up the construction industry, which includes a bigger role for the local metal manufacturing sector.


Cutting the carbon emissions of our buildings is critical to achieving New Zealand’s low emissions future – and it will require more than focusing solely on carbon as the instrument of change.

A recent report from environmental consultancy thinkstep for the New Zealand Green Building Council has found new buildings and renovation will emit the equivalent carbon of one million cars on the road every year up to 2050.

It also provides strategies for reducing the carbon in key building materials like steel and concrete that could equate to taking half a million of those cars off the road.

This is compelling stuff and important in driving the change we need, and Metals New Zealand, which owns a share of these emissions, welcomes and supports the report.

We understand as much as anyone that New Zealand needs to accelerate in its transition to a circular and low emissions economy – and that we all have a vital role to play.

Indeed, some of the strategies identified by thinkstep to reduce emissions are already underway.

But it’ll take more than focusing solely on carbon as the instrument of transition. This requires life cycle analysis, a cradle to cradle process, reducing emissions and environmental impacts at every stage of a building’s life cycle from material extraction and manufacture, to designing for re-use and minimal waste.

And boy do we need to reshape the way construction waste is managed, with this sector estimated to generate around half of New Zealand’s waste to landfill. Though virtually no steel or aluminium ends up in landfills as these metals are infinitely recyclable, easily re-used and repurposed and have significant scrap value.

New Zealand has a new construction sector accord, signed by Ministers of the Crown and construction sector leaders to “work together to create lasting, positive change in the sector”. But it’s silent on the transition to a circular and low emission economy and on the future for local building materials manufacturers to help drive the transition.

Yet our metals manufacturing sector has a critical role to play in the transition. For starters, it is a significant contributor generating around NZ$3.3 billion in GDP and employing almost 30,000 people mostly in the regions, mostly in high-skilled, well paid jobs.

We largely know the carbon make up of their products along with their environmental stewardship, their labour and health and safety practices – and that they are committed to New Zealand’s low emissions future.

Yes, it can be cheaper to buy imported products, but frequently there’s no information about environmental and people stewardship – let alone embodied carbon. And if something goes wrong, things get tough.

…some recently built buildings are facing major refurbishment costs due to failure of cheap building facades imported from Asia that are now leaking badly.

Construction in New Zealand has been plagued by delays of sub-standard imported products and materials. Hotels in Christchurch and apartment complexes in Auckland are years behind schedule and owners of some recently built buildings are facing major refurbishment costs due to failure of cheap building facades imported from Asia that are now leaking badly.

Successive New Zealand governments have been happy to facilitate the purchase of imported, cheaper building materials to drive down the cost of local manufacturing. In some cases, a blind eye is turned to dumped and subsidised products that are low-quality.

Ultimately, to effect a rapid transition to a circular and low emission economy, metals manufacturing needs a level playing field.

Our manufacturing sector faces complex challenges in this transition yet gets little of the government support for research and knowledge dissemination provided to the agricultural sector.

That means fairness in trade. New Zealand manufacturers comply with strict regulatory, environmental and employment practices and Emissions Trading Scheme levies yet imported products enter New Zealand exempt from all these costs.

We also need equity in the funding environment. Our manufacturing sector faces complex challenges in this transition yet gets little of the government support for research and knowledge dissemination provided to the agricultural sector.

The thinkstep report is out. Now let’s see the Green Building Council take a lead in bringing the sector and the Crown together to ensure the identified carbon savings are achieved and local manufacturing is a key player on that journey.

Otherwise we will continue to support offshore manufacturing and import unknown embodied emissions to the detriment of our high-value, high-skill local sector.

Nick Collins is the chief executive officer of Metals New Zealand and a member of the Sustainable Steel Council.

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