As with many activities that result in manmade products, construction is a contributor to climate change.  But for construction companies, there’s also an unprecedented opportunity to be seen as a part—and arguably the largest part—of the solution.

The world’s existing building stock is responsible for one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). In the United States, buildings account to nearly 40 percent of all CO2 emissions, according to the U.S. Green Building Council.

As a result, construction has the greatest potential of any sector to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN. Nor is there a need to wait for new technological solutions to move the needle—existing practices such as those that are part of LEED certification and other green building standards already have been proven to reduce the short- and long-term impact of construction on the environment.

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Construction companies, along with architects, designers, and their clients, can work together to impact the environment in positive ways. Here’s how:

Building green. Many institutional customers are demanding environmentally friendly and sustainable components to their buildings, including efficient heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, energy-efficient lighting, recycled building materials, and other components of LEED certification. The average LEED certified building uses 32 percent less electricity and saves 350 metric tons of greenhouse gas each year, according to the U.S. Green Building Council.

Sourcing. Materials matter. The process of manufacturing cement accounts for as much as 5 percent of human contributions to CO2 emissions, according to the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change. Add to that the impact of transporting materials to building sites, and the process of construction, not just the finished product, provides opportunities to reduce emissions. Using building materials produced locally is one major component of energy-efficient construction.

New materials. Builders can use environmentally friendly materials such as shotcrete, self-cleaning photocatalytic coatings, or materials that incorporate natural elements such as grass pavers. Recycled materials—recycled plastics or composites based on waste products such as timbercrete, ferrock, and ashcrete—represent other emerging options.

Going green is name of the game in real estate, it’s becoming increasingly important in planning for the long haul. Large organizations, including the U.S. military, have already undertaken long-range assessments of the impact of climate change on not just business and geopolitical issues, but also their present—and future—facilities.

But the impact of climate change already has a bearing on decisions builders make today. Long before sea level rise inundates low-lying coastal areas, issues such as “sunny day” flooding and the impact on roads, water, sewer and other infrastructure must be taken into consideration. Builders also must be aware of laws and regulations governing building in vulnerable areas. The 1972 Coastal Zone Management Act encouraged states to create policies that govern low-lying coastal areas, which range from state to state. A handful of states have adopted “rolling easements,” which allow development but prevent the construction of seawalls or other attempts to protect the shoreline. In other places, regulations govern how to “armor” the shoreline using dykes or seawalls or require builders to elevate buildings or the sites they are on.

Location isn’t only a factor in low-lying coastal areas, either. Many organizations also place a premium on building near mass transit or pedestrian- and bike-friendly areas.

Weather-related impacts. Buildings may need to be built—or retrofitted—to withstand extreme weather.

Insurance and finance issues. While it may be more difficult for builders and their customers to obtain insurance and financing in vulnerable areas in the future, opportunities also exist, including financial incentives for builders and their clients who adopt green practices. Already green residential and commercial property insurance policies and endorsements allow property owners to rebuild or repair damage using up-to-date green materials.

Think big—and small. While not every construction job will be a LEED-platinum megasite, there are opportunities to incorporate small energy-saving features on any site—with a big potential impact. “The building sector has many small reduction opportunities spread across millions of buildings. These are known by scientists as ‘long tail’ projects,” a UNEP report states. “Given the large number of buildings, the aggregate savings from the ‘long tail’ are likely to exceed the savings from the top end.”

Construction companies, big and small, all have an impact on that long tail—and on sustainability as a whole. By serving as experts on green building practices for their customers, enterprising builders can boost their bottom line—and help ensure a brighter future.

Photo Credit: alex_tsarik, Twenty20