Ecological transition: what it means and the role of the construction industry

A term that is turning up ever more frequently in everyday life, and one that is a fundamental pillar of the UN 2030 objectives, is ecological transition. As most people know, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity: the plan, signed in 2015 by the 193 member states of the UN, identifies 17 goals that in turn encompass 169 targets to be achieved by 2030. Ecological transition is a concept that appears in several of the objectives that are set out in the plan, for example those focusing on access to clean energy, innovation in infrastructure, sustainable cities, the fight against climate change and the protection of life on land and under water. So let’s take a look at what ecological transition means and what role the construction industry may have in this process.

Ecological transition: a definition

The term Ecological Transition is defined in the Treccani dictionary of the Italian language as: “a process by which human societies manage their relationship with the physical environment, aiming at a more balanced and harmonious relationship as regards local and global ecosystems.” Another interpretation of ecological transition is “a process of technological reconversion aimed at producing fewer polluting substances.”  Both definitions refer to a process, which must be structural in order to set in motion concrete change to the socioeconomic model. The key point in this revolution is the move from fossil fuels to renewable and sustainable sources of energy, so as to be able to effectively combat the climate changes that are putting the planet at risk. So tackling the process of ecological transition means rethinking society as a whole, through a strategic and global approach. There is no doubt that the construction sector must play a leading role in this transformation.

The key points in the ecological transition

Use of renewable energy sources: at the moment, about 85% of the energy used globally derives from combustible fuels. This means fossil fuel sources such as oil and its derivatives, whose environmental impact is no longer acceptable. A rapid reduction in the use of fossil fuels is essential; that is why Italy is committed through its PNIEC (Integrated National Energy and Climate Plan) to achieving 55% of renewable sources by 2030, investing a large portion of the funds made available by the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (PNRR) in the process.

Sustainable mobility: it is well-known that transport is one of the heaviest polluting sectors. In this area, the ecological transition translates into divestment from fossil fuel-powered vehicles, replacing them with vehicles powered by electricity, or possibly by alternative technologies such as hydrogen.

Circular economy: the circular economy is a fundamental aspect of the ecological transition, embracing all sectors. The objective is a drastic reduction in waste, aiming at re-use, refurbishment and recycling.

Sustainable agriculture: the agriculture of the future must be free from pollutants and able to ensure sufficient food for the growing global population. This means the elimination of substances such as pesticides and the adoption of more efficient solutions.

Protection of biodiversity: climate change caused by pollution from human activity has already altered the environment significantly, putting marine and terrestrial biodiversity at risk. It is important to take concrete measures to protect the environment.

An end to drilling: since fossil fuels must be reduced and eventually eliminated, agreement must be reached on putting a stop to drilling for oil and it must be observed at an international level, with investment being directed at green energy production plants.

The Ministry of Ecological Transition

Spurred on by the commitments undertaken at an international level and by the acceleration in climate change, Italy established the Ministry of Ecological Transition (MiTe) in 2021. The Ministry has been assigned responsibility for energy matters, which were previously the responsibility of the Ministry for Economic Development. The first Minister for Ecological Transition (appointed by Mario Draghi’s government) was Roberto Cingolani, who took office on 13 February 2021.

The role of the construction industry in the process of ecological transition

In Europe, buildings are currently responsible for about 40% of energy consumption, as well as 36% of greenhouse gas emissions. In setting up its Renovation Wave programme, the European Commission estimated that to achieve a 60% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions in the existing building stock by 2030, it would be necessary to upgrade 35 million buildings in the European Union. That would be a doubling of the average annual rate of upgrading. This is the context in which to consider the incentives recently made available to citizens.

Taking Italy alone, we find that over 30% of existing buildings currently belong to energy efficiency class G, while only 6% achieve class A. The investment required is huge, but it should also be pointed out that the advantages can be very big too, including economically. According to the Deloitte report “Italy’s Turning Point- Accelerating New Growth On The Path To Net Zero”, a rapid process of decarbonization in Italy could lead to an additional 3.3% in GDP in 2070, as well as the creation of 470,000 new jobs.

The construction sector can therefore make a contribution by improving the energy efficiency of existing buildings, through renovation and upgrading activities. But the systematic reuse of construction materials in line with the principles of the circular economy is also important, as is choosing suppliers with a high level of attention to environmental sustainability as regards the non-reusable commodities. In this context, certificates that show the environmental sustainability of a building, such as LEED, BREEAM, Cradle to Cradle and so on, are becoming more and more important. It is necessary to focus on energy savings along the entire lifecycle of a building, considering its construction, normal operation and subsequent interventions: in transforming these principles into concrete practice, the building industry can make a huge contribution to the global ecological transition.