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Photo showing eco gardens at Cloud forest, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore. Photo by Dhoomil Sheta via Unsplash

Sustainable Building Materials Hub

Welcome to the Sustainable Building Materials Hub (hereinafter “the Hub”). The Hub aims to help policymakers around the world tackle some of the most pressing sustainability and environmental issues facing the building materials and construction industries.

Construction materials are set to dominate resource consumption. Global raw materials consumption is projected to nearly double by 2060, under a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario, and one-third of this growth will be from materials used in the buildings and construction sector. In 2021, the sector represented around 37% of total energy-related emissions with almost 9% of the emissions coming from materials used in the construction of buildings (i.e. concrete, steel, aluminium, glass and bricks) (UNEP/GlobalABC, 2022). 

Current Global Impact of Building Materials on Carbon Emissions The Building Sector is the single largest contributor to global carbon emissions, with some estimates pointing to nearly half of such emissions originating from material extraction, construction, maintenance, and disposal (“embodied carbon emissions”). (Source: 2022 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction: Towards a Zero‐emission, Efficient and Resilient Buildings and Construction Sector, Adapted from “Tracking Clean Energy Progress” (IEA 2022)

Sectoral growth for commonly used building materials has strongly increased in recent years, and this is projected to continue. The concrete and cements sectors are estimated to be ten times larger than 65 years ago, with the steel sector growing threefold during this period.  Construction material markets in fast-growing emerging economies are expected to vastly increase, with their related emissions projected to increase by 3.5 to 4.6 Gt CO2 per year by 2060 (UNEP/GlobalABC, 2022). The sector currently faces a “lock-in” risk for a high-carbon development path unless the consideration of new norms of, lower-carbon and responsibly sourced materials, better design and construction practices, and energy efficiency become a common practice.

Source: United Nations Environment Programme (2023). Building Materials and the Climate: Constructing a New Future. Nairobi

For the world to have any chance of keeping global heating to under 1.5°C, the construction industry has to change - and fast. Decarbonizing building materials requires simultaneous support for material producers and consumers, such as manufacturers, architects, developers, communities, and building occupants. Effective regulation is crucial across all phases of the building life cycle, from extraction to end-of-use, to establish a viable circular supply chain of sustainable options.

Beyond regulation, infrastructure policy, urban planning, and building design choices significantly impact carbon emissions, especially for informal and semi-formal settlements in emerging economies transitioning to formal settlements. The Hub contains a range of resources, including tools, case studies and policy guidance, that can aid policymakers to improve the industry’s environmental performance.

Solutions explained: Avoid-Shift-Improve

The Hub takes a material-neutral, tech-neutral, and performance-based approach, and aligns with UNEP’s work on building materials.

Source: United Nations Environment Programme (2023). Building Materials and the Climate: Constructing a New Future. Nairobi

It emphasises the need to take a whole life-cycle approach along the entire value chain when assessing the climate impacts of the built environment, and outlines three overarching strategies:

  • Avoid: material overuse and new material extraction by building (with) less, re-using and recycling buildings and materials wherever feasible.

  • Shift: away from high-impact conventional materials towards innovative earth- and bio-based ones such as timber, bamboo and biomass.

  • Improve: conventional, non-renewable and high-carbon materials - such as concrete, steel and aluminium, and only using them when necessary.

Source: United Nations Environment Programme (2023). Building Materials and the Climate: Constructing a New Future. Nairobi

The implementation of decarbonization principles may vary across regions. Developed countries will focus on renovating existing building stock, while developing countries will prioritize new construction due to rapid urbanization. Overall, synergistic and coordinated efforts across all stakeholders and phases of the building life cycle are necessary to achieve significant decarbonization in the global building sector.

How to use the Hub

The Hub consists of five topic pages: Policy challenge, Climate, Life cycle stage, Building use and Material. These pages help introduce you to the resources, where you can apply filters to find a range of resources that are most useful to you. 

The Avoid-Shift-Improve framework is referenced throughout the Hub on every topic page, and each resource is tagged with the strategy to which it contributes. 

If you would like to submit a resource to the Hub, please visit the resource submission form. Anyone can submit a resource for consideration - you do not need to be a member of the GlobalABC.

If you would like to be part of the Materials working group, or have feedback/questions about the Hub, please contact the GlobalABC.

The Hub shares GlobalABC’s mission and vision, and is a collaborative project between UNEP, GlobalABC, and sustainability consultants Bioregional.