India aims to reduce the emissions intensity of its economy by 45% by 2030, compared to 2005 levels, and to achieve net-zero emissions by 2070. The country can’t achieve either goal without a radical transformation in its buildings and construction sector, which was responsible for around 17% of the nation’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 20191.
Innovative techniques, such as switching to low-carbon prefabricated materials and construction methods, can help substantially reduce the industry’s carbon footprint. But this transition is not without risk: The construction sector provides jobs to more than 59 million people in India. Most are low-skilled workers who will require extensive training and reskilling to take advantage of new opportunities in sustainable construction. Without adequate support as the industry evolves, these workers’ livelihoods could be at risk.
Countries around the world are facing similar challenges as they work to decarbonize their economies, underscoring the need for a “just transition” that puts support for vulnerable workers and communities at the heart of climate action. For India’s construction sector, that means not only slashing carbon emissions but also upskilling workers and ensuring their employability in a low-carbon world.
Low-Carbon Construction Can Support Both Climate and Development Goals
India’s buildings and construction sector is highly carbon-intensive, contributing around one-sixth of the nation’s total GHG emissions. One proven way to reduce this impact is by using prefabricated construction materials and technology. This involves manufacturing low-carbon building components off- site and transporting them to construction sites for assembly.
Research has shown that, compared to conventional methods, prefabricated buildings can reduce “embodied” carbon emissions in the construction process by up to 15.6%; this includes carbon produced from manufacturing, transportation, installation and disposal of building materials. Prefabricated materials can also reduce up to 3.2% of “operational” carbon emissions, meaning those produced over a building’s lifecycle through maintenance and energy use.
In addition to cutting carbon emissions, prefabrication can significantly reduce the time required for construction projects, save on costs, improve the quality of construction and minimize construction waste. Moreover, prefabricated buildings are more resilient to extreme weather events, such as heat waves, urban flooding and cyclones, which are becoming more frequent and severe due to climate change.
While developers and builders are beginning to adopt these technologies, progress to date has been slow: Prefabricated construction currently accounts for just 2% of the industry and is used mainly to build warehouses, industrial units and large-scale infrastructure projects, such as bridges and metro rails.
Scaling the use of prefabrication and expanding into other key development areas could not only bring the country closer to achieving its climate goals, but also help meet the needs of India’s rapidly urbanizing population — for instance, by building homes and healthcare infrastructure faster and more affordably.
But New Technology Puts Construction Sector Workers at Risk
Alongside climate and resilience benefits, the transition to lower-carbon construction materials can create millions of new, well-paid jobs in India’s construction sector. It’s estimated that the industry will need around 45 million additional skilled workers in the next decade. However, without proactive policies to support the workforce throughout this transition, many current workers could be at risk of losing their livelihoods.
The superior design and manufacturing of high-performance, prefabricated materials demand precision during all stages of the project cycle. This requires a higher level of skill across the value chain — from construction workers to architects, urban planners, engineers and project managers. Currently, however, 84% of India’s total construction workforce falls under the semi-skilled and unskilled category. These workers will require extensive training and skilling to adapt to future trends in the construction industry and take advantage of new, better-paid jobs.
How to Ensure a Just Transition for India’s Construction Workers
To ensure that new opportunities in sustainable construction benefit all workers, policymakers should focus on supporting capacity building, upskilling and reskilling and providing technical assistance. Here are some key considerations to ensure a just low-carbon transition in India’s buildings and construction sector:
1) Prepare workers for new opportunities in the construction industry
Prefabrication technology requires skilled labor for on-site as well as off-site activities. Manufacturing building components in a factory environment requires experience with production lines, manufacturing systems, assembly, safety and control — meaning that training programs should focus on equipping workers to operate in mechanized environments. This can encompass a variety of green skills including waste management and recycling, energy efficiency awareness, quality check and assurance, material and component handling, green equipment operation and more.
The government can play a key role in preparing the workforce for these new opportunities. For example, India’s Ministry of Housing and Urban Development launched the National Initiative for Promoting Upskilling of Nirman (construction workers) in 2022. The program aims to train over 100,000 construction workers and equip them with the skills needed for adopting new construction technology. To execute this mission, India’s National Real Estate Development Council and the Confederation of Real Estate Developers’ Associations of India have started to lead and financially support training initiatives.
Nonprofit and government organizations like the National Skill Development Corporation and Skill Council for Green Jobs can also drive upskilling initiatives through a mix of classroom and on-the-job trainings for construction workers. The Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, the Government of India and private banking institutions can provide funds to support such programs.
2) Tap into the potential of the private sector
The private sector can contribute by offering on-the-job training to the workforce. For example, Larsen and Toubro (a major multinational conglomerate involved in the construction industry) has been providing structured training to upskill its workforce in India for the past 25 years. Over the last decade alone, Larsen and Tourbo has trained over 16,500 workers at its headquarters in Chennai, India.
Nonprofit organizations and educational institutions can also curate short-term training courses on topics related to digital design, quantity surveying design for manufacturing, and assembly. For example, the Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society offers specialized courses on masonry, carpentry, steel work and plastering which help semi-skilled workers take up better roles.
3) Create a supportive policy and regulatory environment
A supportive policy environment will be critical to expanding low-carbon practices in India’s construction industry and meeting nationwide emissions reduction goals. In addition, policymakers and implementing authorities will need to ensure that workers receive not only training but also benefits such as safety, health, welfare and other conditions of service.
Along with passing new legislation, decision-makers can better leverage existing policies to advance decarbonization efforts and safeguard the interests of the construction workforce, for example:
- The Building and Other Construction Workers Act was enacted in 1996 to provide social security benefits to India’s construction workers. However, due to lack of awareness, only 35 million of the country’s 59 million construction workers are registered under this act to receive benefits and support from the government. The state government, municipal authorities and employers can make a collective effort to raise awareness around this program and ensure that workers receive their rightful benefits.
- A full-scale transition in the construction industry will require increased awareness and implementation of low-carbon practices among construction professionals across the value chain. To this end, the Bureau of Energy Efficiency developed Eco-Niwas Samitha in 2018, an energy conservation residential building code which aims to promoting energy efficient design techniques and use of low-carbon construction materials. The code is also intended to raise awareness of energy-efficient building techniques across the industry. Presently, 23 out of the 28 states in India have notified to adopt this code. However, implementation by construction professionals is still lagging and needs to be further enforced by the state governments and urban local bodies.
With these and other supportive policies in place, India’s shift to low-carbon construction can lay the foundation for a greener, more sustainable future – not only for the environment but for millions of workers, too.
This article is the second half of a two-part series on just transitions in India. The first explores how new solar parks can impact India’s landless workers. Learn more about WRI’s work on Just Transitions here.
1 We calculated the percentage of India’s GHG emissions stemming from the buildings and construction sector using data from India’s Third National Communications to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Our calculation includes the following key source categories: (1) Energy-use GHG emissions from bricks (607.014 GgCO2e); commercial/institutional buildings (157,871.45 GgCO2e); residential buildings (109,047.82 GgCO2e); iron and steel (63,485.57 GgCO2e); and cement (34,274.032 GgCO2e). (2) Industrial-process and product-use GHG emissions from cement (82,303 GgCO2e); glass (379 GgCO2e); and ceramics (23 GgCO2e). Additional sources used to determine the percentage of steel and cement demand attributed to India’s construction sector include CRISIL’s 2021 report, “New Opportunities for Steel and Construction in Infrastructure,” and the Indian Mineral Yearbook 2019.
Niyati Gupta is Senior Program Associate, Climate at WRI India.
Steffi Olickal is Senior Program Associate, Climate at WRI India.