A circular economy for buildings tackles climate change and waste

Josh Newton, Cities Activation Manager at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation discusses how we can create and use buildings, to allow us to explore new ways of ensuring long-term prosperity.

Cities are the engine rooms of economic growth. They are crucial centres for culture, learning, and innovation. It’s why even after the Covid-19 pandemic, populations in urban centres are forecast to continue growing and by 2050, more than two thirds of us will live in cities.

However, our cities are already grappling with the effects of our current take-make-waste linear economy. In this system, defined by continuous resource extraction and waste production, cities consume over 75% of global natural resources, and emit 60-80% of greenhouse gases. 

The built environment is well understood to be one of the most significant contributors to this. It is behind more than one third of global resource consumption and around half of all urban solid waste is generated by construction, demolition, and excavation. A collaborative report from C40 Cities, the University of Leeds and Arup anticipates emissions from the construction of buildings and infrastructure will increase by 37% by 2050.

Not only does this current approach to construction and real estate undermine climate objectives, but it also fails to meet the demand of growing populations effectively. Up to 60% of office space in Europe is unused during work hours, while the space in UK higher education is 72% underutilised.

In contrast, a circular economy provides the opportunity to redesign how we create and use buildings, and allows us to explore new ways of ensuring long-term prosperity.

Based on three principles, driven by design, the circular economy provides a framework to eliminate waste and pollution, keep materials in use at their highest value for as long as possible, and regenerate natural systems. These principles can be integrated into all phases of a building’s life cycle and can help create a sector that is resilient to volatile prices of raw virgin materials, help maintain vital ecosystem services, and create urban areas that are more comfortable, safe, and cost-effective. Alongside energy efficiency and decarbonisation, the circular economy plays a vital role in the construction sector contributing to net-zero climate targets and beyond.

Three main circular economy strategies can be used to reduce emissions from the built environment by 2.1 billion tonnes by 2050. 

  1. Make better use of existing buildings through sharing and reuse so fewer new buildings need to be created (see revitalising the Sydney Harbour Area)
  2. Design new buildings for flexible use and eliminate waste in construction (see off-site construction in Oakland)
  3. Reuse and recycle building materials so that they don’t end up in landfill or incinerators (see ReLondon’s guide to sourcing reclaimed materials)

London’s pioneering introduction of circular economy statements for all large developments will play a crucial role in ensuring these strategies become commonplace in the city.