How can science and innovation be utilised for the good of the planet? Guest article by our module leader, Richard Cork

Posted on: 9 November, 2021

It’s jointly Gender Day and Science and Innovation Day at COP26 today. UCEM Chair of the Board of Trustees, Amanda Clack, shared her thoughts on the importance of gender balance in driving climate action. For our focus on science and innovation, we enlisted the help of our ‘Sustainable and Innovative Construction’ module leader, Richard Cork, who addresses how science and innovation can be harnessed for the good of the planet below…

 Richard Cork

For centuries, people have used science and innovation to improve their way of life. In times of need, innovation has been applied to food production to increase yields and to protect crops from disease. In times of plenty, innovation has allowed global trade to cash in on surpluses, and, in times of conflict, we have again looked to our scientists to help develop our defences.

Innovation has become our ‘go to’ approach for dealing with the opportunities and threats that life throws at us, but sometimes it is these very inventions that prove to have disastrous side effects. Adding lead to petrol made a significant improvement to vehicle engine performance, for example, but the pollution that resulted from this innovation may still affect us decades after its use has been banned. The human and environmental costs have been immeasurable, and this is only one example.

The construction industry has seen a similar pattern of innovation in response to need and opportunity over the years. Refinements to steel and cement production techniques around the beginning of the 20th century, for example, might be thought of as just an evolution of existing technologies, but the effect on construction was truly revolutionary. Suddenly, we could build taller, faster and stronger than ever before and framed structures began springing up in cities all over the world. As these skyscraper pioneers reached for the sky, reinforced concrete became an almost universally available material that was used by builders around the world. Unfortunately, it has taken a very long time for us to realise the damage this revolution causes to our global environment.

Estimates vary but the rule of thumb I usually go by is that in the production of 1,000kg of ordinary cement, we can expect around 800kg of CO2 to be released into the atmosphere. When we consider the millions of tonnes of cement used in the built environment every year, it is hardly surprising that the construction industry contributes such a significant amount to global CO2 emissions.

Think also about where that carbon has been, which is now being released as CO2. It was laid down as sea shells or coral millions of years ago and has been safely locked away in limestone ever since. No amount of tree planting can adequately ‘offset’ that type of damage. Such an approach won’t clean up the industry; it merely attempts to buy the right to stay dirty.

Faced as we are with the climate emergency – arguably the greatest threat humanity has faced for a hundred generations – we need to turn once again to our scientists and inventors to innovate at least as urgently as we ever have before. There is no point building the tallest apartment building in the world if it looks out over a parched wasteland that can no longer produce the food needed to feed the occupants.

This work has started, and some great minds are focusing on the problem, but we need to accept that all of us must have the future of the planet central in our minds as we build our post-pandemic world.

Let us innovate as we never have before to reduce the damage that development causes to our environment. Whether it be low-carbon concrete, concrete-free construction or reducing demand for new structures in the first place, the focus of our innovation should now be to create a carbon-negative built environment.