The importance of reducing on-site pollutant emissions in construction

The importance of reducing on-site pollutant emissions in construction

Air pollution has been identified as the single largest environmental health risk in Europe. Exposure to even low levels is linked to increased risk of strokes, cancers and premature death. In London alone, 9,500 premature deaths in London during 2010 were attributable to exposure to common pollutants NO2 and PM2.5 in the air. Toby Gill, CEO from IPG Energy looks at what steps can be taken to mitigate this in the construction industry.

Construction sites are some of the highest contributors to poor air quality in London, due to the large quantities of PM10, or dust, produced by demolition activities, and additional pollutants NOx, CO and PM2.5 found at lower quantities in the exhaust fumes of non-road mobile machinery (NRMM), such as diesel generators.

Yet, although carbon reduction targets have been widely established, there is currently no UK-wide legislative requirement to reduce the levels of pollutant emissions on site. With many operatives working in proximity to the exhaust of a diesel generator, this puts site teams and local communities at significant risk of harm, a risk that increases with the size and duration of the development.

The search for solutions that address the harm posed by pollutant emissions may seem daunting. Thankfully, the work that has already been done to identify viable solutions for achieving zero carbon construction will make achieving pollution-free sites even easier. The move towards the electrification of tools and plant machinery, as well as emerging solutions offering a clean, net-zero alternative to the diesel generator for on-site power generation, show that reducing pollutant emissions in the same breath as targeting zero carbon is a real possibility.

Renewable generators that employ flameless and/or catalytic combustion technologies now offer a realistic alternative to the diesel-powered solution that the industry is comfortable with, and demonstrate that both pollutant and carbon emission reductions can be achieved with one solution. These technologies, found in fuel cells and fuel-agnostic gensets, can provide on-site power without the production of pollutants. This, alongside compatibility with zero-carbon fuels (such as green hydrogen), enables the significant reduction of overall emissions from on-site power generation. However, the presence alone of these solutions is not enough to have a positive impact. What is missing is the intervention of new legislation to drive faster adoption and effective change.

In the UK, London is leading the way in recognizing the harm of poor air quality on human health, and setting legislation to combat this. New Air Quality Neutral (AQN) and Air Quality Positive (AQP) guidance set air pollution benchmarks for new buildings, while under the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), all machinery will be required to be zero emission by 2040 - including on-site generators. But to have a real impact, we need to see equivalent legislation rolled out nationally. Doing so would not only set a roadmap for achieving pollutant emissions reduction targets at scale, but would also provide the necessary incentive to drive the adoption of pollutant-free tools and machinery on all construction sites.

To address this, we should take inspiration from the ambitious carbon reduction plans already set by companies to help the industry achieve Net Zero 2050. Some of these plans target the eradication of diesel generators from construction sites from as early as 2026, despite the fact that many of the technologies that can support this ambition are still in the early stages of development. By laying out a clear roadmap to decarbonisation in direct response to both legislative requirements and consumer demand, the industry will accelerate the development of the viable solutions they need to achieve their targets. This forward-thinking approach can be replicated to accelerate the reduction of pollutant emissions and create a safer environment for site workers and local communities.

The tender process will also play a significant role in driving this change. As one of the largest customers to the construction industry, the government has a responsibility to instigate the necessary changes in the tender process through its own, large scale tenders. This will encourage the transformation of the priority that is placed on pollutant emissions reductions and see mitigation action for them playing a more prominent role alongside carbon emissions in the scoring of tenders. Driving positive change in this way will help the industry to transform and adopt innovations, challenging the status quo and setting new goals that will tackle pollutant emissions. Setting goals from the top down will help to bring about change through the whole construction value chain.

We are moving to a world where innovations in the electrification of tools and machinery and advances in clean and renewable power generation technologies are able to help the construction sector move to cleaner sites. With the help of more ambitious targets and legislation aimed at reducing pollutant emissions to accelerate this change, this is a huge opportunity for construction companies to truly maximise the benefits for their site teams, local communities and the environment, and set the standard as a trail-blazer for industries in hard-to-abate sectors to move away from polluting sources such as diesel generators on their sites.


Picture credit: Depositphotos

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Toby Gill