The tantalising but also dangerous side of CO2 reduction by COVID-19 - part 1

Sustainably build column by Maarten Schäffner

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As ambassadors of the healthy and sustainable built environment, we have been delighted to witness the spectacular decline of CO2 emissions worldwide. The year 2020 will go into the records as the year in which we saw the biggest ever reduction in CO2. A wonderful bonus, but obviously one that is the result of a dreadful pandemic. But let's be optimistic. Together we will get through this crisis. But won't we then immediately find ourselves in the next climate or nitrogen crisis? What can we learn from the crisis in the built environment? And how do we prevent the construction industry’s CO2 emissions from rising to their old levels within a few months? 

As a result of coronavirus, a global reduction of around 1.6 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions has been measured (source: CarbonBrief website). That is a reduction of over 4 % of the global CO2 emissions and the biggest decline ever in a single year. Because this is an average, the emissions at the peak of the coronameasures were much higher. In China, emissions declined by an amazing 25 percent at the peak of the crisis, and it is still lower than before the pandemic.

Closer to home, we can roughly estimate a reduction of 10 % in CO2 emissions in 2020 due to the coronavirus in the Netherlands (20 million tonnes CO2 less than the total of 200 million tonnes CO2 - source: CBS). This does not take the decline in aviation and shipping into account because these are not (yet) included in our national CO2 target. This 10 % reduction is mainly the result of a decline in traffic (+/-40 %) and of lower energy consumption (+/- 10 %). In terms of the Paris Climate Agreement: To limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, global CO2 emissions must be reduced by 6 percent every year.

Consideration - effects on the construction industry in the Netherlands

In the following consideration, I primarily assume the positive effects on climate change. There are obviously negative effects too and I do not consider the social consequences of my advice. I am aware of that! But this is because I want to focus on the effects on the climate and the opportunities for the construction industry. Any eventual implementation will need to be more integrated and done in consultation with other disciplines! 

  • For most engineering consultants, the footprint has fallen to almost 'zero', but the firms are still operating. Of course, there has been a shift from the work footprint to home footprint, but we have gained a great deal in terms of both heat requirements and transport. Although the long-term effects may yet prove to be disappointing, the traditional view that 'economic growth is inherent to CO2 emissions' does not hold up. Apparently, we can travel much less, use much less office space and use much less energy for heat.
  • For me, the most optimistic conclusion we can draw is that we humans can achieve the required CO2 reduction and avoid the catastrophic consequences! Who would have thought? Of course, the circumstances have been appalling, but it is proof that it is possible. As a climate engineer, that reassures me somewhat... We need sufficient bottom-up support and good top-down leadership. Then we will be able to conquer the climate crisis. 
  • It is vital that we continue investing in sustainability, particularly now! In recent weeks, I have been talking to clients who are devoting less attention to climate and circularity due to coronavirus. But by investing now, the coming growth (after the crisis) can be much more sustainable. This will ultimately lead to a more stable construction industry. Clients must therefore invest now in sustainability and health.
  • Delivering installation material is already problematic in this coronavirus crisis. Solar panels and their parts are becoming increasingly scarce (source: Cobouw). According to NVTB, metaalunie and HIBIN, building materials can still be delivered, but this may change if there is a second wave of coronavirus. We are very dependent on construction material from abroad. In a circular economy with short transparent chains, shouldn't we think harder about that?
  • Another wonderful conclusion is that nature has an amazing ability to recover. For the first time in years, there are fish in the canals in Venice and nitrogen surpluses are falling fast in the Netherlands. We must certainly not underestimate nature's adaptive ability. However, there is also a danger here. It will take at least a year before the positive effect is felt throughout the biodiversity chains (source: Wallis de Vries from Wageningen University). If we revert to our pre-coronavirus behaviour, that effect will disappear.
  • However, there is a danger in the measure relating to public transport, whereby it may only be used in exceptional situations. We must ensure that people are not forced back into their cars...
  • Various studies have also shown that we are beginning to appreciate nature much more. This generates much more support for green, sustainable initiatives in society. So there is momentum! The second part of the publication 'The tantalising but also dangerous side of CO2 reduction due to COVID-19', looks at the opportunities and recommendations for the construction industry. 

This column was written by Maarten Schäffner - he is industry ambassador Koninklijke NLingenieurs/Witteveen+Bos - in cooperation with Jos Schild and Basak Karabulut, industry ambassadors Gezonde & Duurzame Gebouwde Omgeving of NL Ingenieurs (please copy this link) and was previously posted on the website Duurzaam Gebouwd (insert link:

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