Locale : Global (English)
Decarbonising the infrastructure industry
Our industry needs to recognise the need for radical action, identify where to put effort first for greatest effect, and take action.
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A 30-year transformation

Clare Wildfire, Global practice leader for cities, Mott MacDonald

We in the infrastructure industry have 30 years to decarbonise infrastructure. Three decades is a long time in terms of our daily lives. It’s long enough to raise a family and develop a career – or two. But in terms of business planning, regulatory cycles and investment payback, it is very short indeed. There is no time to waste.

In May 2019 the UK government legislated to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. It acted on advice and recommendations from its advisory group, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), that rapid and total decarbonisation of the economy is required to achieve a stable climate and a sustainable future.

In addition to recognising the UK’s need to play its fair part in decarbonising the entire global economy, the CCC and government noted that the UK’s net-zero target is realistic – and economically desirable. The transition offers immense social and economic opportunities. However, it requires a transformation of both the infrastructure we create and the political, social and behavioural systems that govern the way it is managed and used.

For us all, the burning question now is how to do it.

To date the infrastructure industry has made some progress on doing what it does already in better and lower carbon ways. The CCC’s message is now about transformative change in what we do as well as how we do it. New types of assets fit for a net-zero future will come on line, some assets currently in use will have to be decommissioned or re-purposed and plans for some new assets will need to be revised or scrapped.

Construction or life-extension of greenhouse gas-emitting infrastructure will increasingly become an ‘option of last resort’. It should become impossible to implement those options without a clear link to compensation elsewhere.

Each planning, investment and operational decision must be focused on 2050 and the neutralisation of all UK emissions – net-zero.

Three strands of activity are required:

  1. Clean energy revolution: transform the energy system, including how we produce and use this energy.
  2. Curb energy demand: radically transform our approach to energy conservation, in construction and operation.
  3. If you can’t remove it: capture and store remaining carbon emissions, forever.

The UK has tackled the low hanging fruit for the first two strands with relative success. Net-zero has brought into focus the need for action on aspects that are more difficult. And it is only now that a net-zero target has been set that the significance of the third strand, carbon sequestration, is truly clear. It requires the infrastructure industry to consider how far it can go in reducing its emissions.

Overcoming industry inertia

Anyone with experience of trying to change our industry knows that it is slow to respond. Therefore, the process of plotting what we have to do differently, and then doing it, should start now. But there are some factors to overcome: 2050 seems remote – still three decades away. In an industry governed by five-year business planning, regulatory and political cycles, a target 30 years distant is off the business-as-usual radar. How can net-zero be accorded the necessary urgency?

The picture is complex. In practice infrastructure is a system of systems. Responsibility for emissions will be spread across those interconnected systems, and between asset creation, operation and use. For any one party, it is difficult to see where best to direct effort, where to draw boundaries, with whom to co-operate, and what changes to current business practices to make first.

Net-zero requires underpinning with policy. That involves difficult choices and political energy. But it also involves engineers owning their professional duty of care to safeguard society from harm. Codes of professional conduct are clear on exercising the precautionary principle and on taking an inter-generational view of risk. While they do not currently address climate change by name, the issue is there, ‘written between the lines’.

Professionals working across the built environment need to kick into a much higher gear.

Traditionally, when talking about infrastructure and carbon reduction, energy efficiency is the first major topic. Though it remains an essential component of success both economically and technically, a path based on conservation alone is no longer anywhere near adequate. Our industry needs to recognise the need for radical action, identify where to put effort first for greatest effect, and take action.

For more on where engineers, investors and policymakers must focus to achieve net-zero, click here.

Clare Wildfire

Global practice leader for cities

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