The window for meeting the emission reductions needed to avoid catastrophic impacts of climate change is closing fast. Whatever agreements are made at COP26, infrastructure owners and operators must act now to help secure global net-zero by 2050 and deliver climate resilience, writes Mark Crouch.
The relationship between infrastructure and climate change is clear. It is estimated that around 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions stem from infrastructure. What’s more, infrastructure has to be resilient to the climate change that is already happening and still to come.
For those of us, however, who are involved in planning and delivering infrastructure, collectively described as the infrastructure value chain, understanding how the outcomes of the COP26 climate change conference translate to our roles and responsibilities will be a little harder to unpick.
Whatever our role in the infrastructure value chain, whether that be planning authority, funding body, asset owner or operator, designer, contractor, or material or product supplier, COP26 will have an influence on the way we operate.
While these changes may not come directly from the headline agreements negotiated at COP26, they will flow down in multiple ways. Indeed, the focal point that COP26 provides is already driving substantive industry changes. Here are several ways how:
Confirmation of policy direction
Leading organisations don’t wait for policy to be 'done to them’, rather, they anticipate and play a role in shaping it. This is true regardless of whether you are a national government or city mayor, an asset owner or operator, or a delivery partner or stakeholder.
The net-zero strategies that have been set by leading organisations show how they intend to deliver their role, but having stronger international agreements, followed by national and sectoral agreements, means that individual actors can have the confidence to act upon ever more ambitious decarbonisation plans.
Clearer definitions of net-zero
Net-zero goals have been widely adopted by a range of organisations, whether corporate, administrative regions or sectoral. There are also an increasing number of infrastructure projects and infrastructure sustainability initiatives setting net-zero as an objective at a project level.
Yet, there is not a clearly agreed definition of what this means. What boundary is used to assess this? What is the counterfactual? How do you account for behaviour changes? What is the role of offsetting?
Finding a common way to identify which projects are genuinely aligned to, and actively supportive of, a wider societal shift to net-zero is crucial to get these projects prioritised in planning and funding decisions.
Standardised approach to carbon management
With a greater focus on the carbon impact of decisions and infrastructure projects, the need for a common framework to assess projects will only get stronger. PAS 2080, the world’s first carbon management infrastructure specification and co-authored by Mott MacDonald, is being increasingly mainstreamed and used on an ever-growing number of projects globally. The specification is currently being revised to make it even more powerful – broadening its coverage and having a greater emphasis on net-zero and greenhouse gas removals and offsetting.
For carbon management to become standard practice, rather than the preserve of niche specialists, it must be integrated into design activity, costing and funding decisions. Powerful and user-friendly digital tools, such as Moata Carbon Portal, are crucial to this.
Greater focus on embodied carbon
Embodied or capital carbon, the carbon impact of building new infrastructure, has been generally overlooked by policy to date. As power, transport and heating decarbonise, the embodied impacts will become an increasingly important component of overall emissions.
The issue of imported emissions will grow as international frameworks for measuring the carbon flows between countries are strengthened – for example, with carbon border tax adjustments under discussion at COP26. This all points to a much greater focus on embodied emissions and Scope 3 emissions (all indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain).
Collaboration and sharing of best practice
If COP26 is to be a success, it will need strong international co-operation. Likewise, the success of carbon management is dependent on industry-wide collaboration and knowledge sharing. With this goal, for eight years, we have been running our annual infrastructure carbon management event, Carbon Crunch. In 2020, our event moved online across four days, and we are keeping this format for 2021.
Using examples from the COP26 host city of Glasgow and beyond, this year's event will explore the roles and responsibilities of national policymakers, regulators and local decision-makers, as well as asset owners and operators, in enabling and accelerating our transition to a net-zero carbon emissions world.