Construction projects around the world have a significant impact on our environment, both on a local and a global scale. Every stage of the construction process has a measurable environmental impact: the mining processes used to source materials, the transportation of these materials to the building site from sources around the world, the construction process itself and the waste removal and disposal process that follows the completion of the project. With a rapidly developing global economy, it is crucial that we understand how the construction projects we undertake impact the environment and how we can measure and reduce that impact in the future. This article discusses the impact of construction projects on the environment and how contractors and firms can work to reduce that impact.
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Construction’s Impact on the Environment and Climate Change
Climate change scientists believe that the Earth is rapidly getting warmer and that human activity is playing a significant role in accelerating this process. The biggest way in which construction firms are doing this is by contributing to carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide is a gaseous product of burning fossil fuels like gas and diesel. This gas gets trapped in our atmosphere, creating a “greenhouse effect” that warms the Earth over a long period of time.
Given that, every construction project results in the emission of carbon dioxide, methane, and other waste products that pollute the air and are believed to contribute to global climate change. The most harmful aspect of construction in terms of contributing to climate change is the operation of heavy machinery in mining projects that extract raw materials from the Earth for use in construction projects. The global cement industry contributes approximately 5% of global carbon dioxide emissions. Applications of fuel and electricity are also major contributors – fossil fuels are used to extract and transport minerals, to process materials, and even to power tools on construction sites.
Environmental Impacts of Construction Projects
Aside from contributing to climate change on a global scale, individual construction projects can have a significant impact on local environments and nature. There are numerous sources of water pollution on building sites, including diesel and other fossil fuels, paints, solvents, and toxic chemicals. Even minor chemical spills leech into the ground and may enter waterways where they toxify water and harm aquatic life. In the developing world, there are often less stringent requirements for the disposal of toxic construction waste products, resulting in significant local environmental damage following a building project.
Even greater than the impacts of the construction process itself is the environmental impact of the actual buildings that are being constructed. It has been estimated that the daily operation of buildings accounts for 40% of total energy usage worldwide. Projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline have been criticized for their long-term environmental impact on the areas they run through. Critics of this project suspect that transporting fossil fuels through hundreds of miles of pipeline will lead to oil spills that can go undetected for long periods and damage or destroy wild lands that were previously undisturbed.
The Future of Environmentally Conscious Construction
Reducing the environmental effects of construction requires a collaborative effort from many different stakeholders. While legislators work to create regulations surrounding construction waste management and green building construction, many global construction firms are taking the initiative to create, study, and enforce their standards for limiting the environmental impacts of construction projects.
One of the main areas of innovation is the usage of green building materials in new projects. Green materials can be synthetically produced, reducing, or eliminating the need to engage in destructive and costly mining practices that use a lot of fossil fuels. Green materials may also be easier to recycle or re-use in other projects in the future, leading to cost savings for firms and lesser environmental impacts that benefit everyone. Construction debris disposal is also streamlined by the use of materials that are quickly and efficiently recycled.
For construction companies that operated before there was significant data on climate change, life may have seemed much easier. Today, more and more firms are being asked to shoulder the costs of construction waste recycling and environmentally responsible construction practices.
As a result, many of these firms are stepping up to the plate and coming up with new methods to reduce costs and reduce the impact that their projects have on the environment. More cooperation is needed between firms, lawmakers, and the public to fund research for better methods, impose tighter regulations on construction firms and the people that benefit from their work, and elevate our collective stewardship of the environment. Working together, we can move towards a more sustainable paradigm for construction projects.