MECLA, Materials & Embodied Carbon Leaders’ Alliance, born in NSW, is spreading its influence – for good reason. The Victorian government isn’t aboard yet but its Ecologiq initiative provides guidelines for choosing re-used and recycled materials for transport projects. And now we need action from other jurisdictions to jump in. The early signs from the new Albanese government are positive. 

As much as 50 per cent of whole lifecycle carbon emissions from buildings comes from embodied carbon – generated from the manufacturing and transport of materials and the construction process. Concrete and steel used in buildings and infrastructure projects amount to almost 15 per cent of global carbon emissions. 

The construction industry is a “hard to abate” sector in reducing embodied carbon for reasons I’ll explain below. However, doing so is a crucial step to reach net zero by 2050.

Tackling challenges of this scale will take more than one individual party. Rapid industry-wide systems change is required, and generosity, collaboration and partnership are vital parts of the journey we need to be on. 

That is why we are proud to be a founding member of the Materials & Embodied Carbon Leaders’ Alliance (MECLA) – a coalition of WWF Australia, the NSW government and 120 other leading companies to accelerate decarbonisation of the building and construction industry.  

The Green Building Council of Australia released a report in July 2021 that noted the growing significance of embodied carbon. The report states the contribution of embodied carbon to whole life building emissions is expected to climb from 16 per cent in 2019 to 85 per cent in 2050, as our power generation is decarbonised. 

Knowing this, project clients across Australia want to understand their Scope 3 emissions and how they can reduce their embodied carbon footprint. 

Our industry is looking for pathways to net zero and the MECLA partnership is facilitating this. MECLA is bringing the industry together to develop a common language, agree on methodologies, share knowledge and identify innovative low and zero carbon processes and materials. It is a forum for members to gain better understanding and visibility at all points along the supply chain.

The global built environment sector is the source of almost 40 per cent of global carbon emissions. Yet it has been estimated that less than 1 per cent of projects are currently evaluated in a way that quantifies the scale and source of carbon emissions generated during the construction and lifespans of assets. 

Collaboration, generosity and knowledge sharing are key: we need to measure, develop and share data across the industry and bring stakeholders on the journey with us. We need a mindset change across the industry and with our clients. Through partnerships like MECLA we can share knowledge and upskill across the whole value chain across the industry. 

Throughout the project life cycle, stakeholders face a series of critical decision points to enable change. Clients have net zero targets and want to implement strategies that deliver carbon reductions through the procurement process to the delivery of projects. 

Designers, engineers and consultants are able to influence from the outset and are developing design approaches to facilitate reuse of assets, optimise material use and specify low carbon materials. Contractors are looking for suppliers that can offer low carbon products and materials, and suppliers are driving innovation to make these products reliable and cost competitive. 

One of the biggest opportunities we have is decarbonising through the maintenance and retrofitting of existing building stock. The benefits of asset renewal also extend beyond decarbonisation. 

The construction industry is continuing to innovate in its use of materials. However, updating construction standards take time. With the use of non-standardised materials is the need to understand performance, conduct testing and demonstrate use through pilot and precedent projects. This will drive the update of standards and specifications. 

Designers and suppliers are looking for a transition to performance-based specifications. Through MECLA we are raising awareness and driving change from the bottom up. But we also need change to be driven from the top down. 

In Europe for example, alignment and action from government has been a powerful catalyst. Increased regulation, measurement and disclosure requirements are being driven by government policy. 

I commend the NSW government for making significant inroads around policy and procurement. Most recently, Transport NSW has committed to co-creating a solution with industry towards decarbonisation, including implementing sustainable procurement across its $72 billion infrastructure pipeline. 

While not yet in the MECLA partnership, the Victorian government’s Ecologiq initiative provides guidelines for choosing re-used and recycled materials for transport projects. 

We need more action from all states and the federal government too – the early signs are positive that the new Albanese government will strengthen Australia’s commitment to net zero. MECLA should be a truly national alliance incorporating all levels of government. It’s time for action now, and the current MECLA alliance needs to be bold and knock-on doors to make this happen. 

Kerryn Coker is the co-chair of Arup in Australasia. She joined the company in London as a façade engineer in 2004 and has since worked on a  broad range of projects, mainly in Sydney, including 1 Bligh Street in Sydney, 8 Chifley Square and Quay Quarter Tower in Sydney, and NewActon Nishi in Canberra.  

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