Sam Friggens, Senior energy economist, Mott MacDonald
Great Britain in 2050:
7500 offshore wind turbines supporting an electricity system that has trebled in size. 26M homes retrofitted for energy efficiency and supplied by heat pumps and city-scale district heat networks. Hydrogen production feeding a repurposed gas grid to fuel a fleet of HGVs. 150Mt CO2 captured from industrial facilities and power plants each year and stored safely in depleted gas fields under the sea-bed. Digital technology applied across the infrastructure base to enable radical efficiency improvements.
This is the scale of the challenge facing the UK's infrastructure sector in building a net zero carbon economy by mid-century. It is a challenge described by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) as “unprecedented” but at the same time “necessary, feasible and cost-effective” in its latest advice to Government on strengthening the UK's contribution to tackling climate change.
The CCC rightly identifies the critical role of Government in creating the conditions for the UK to reach net zero. First, Government must legislate the new target into law by the end of this year, providing an unambiguous signal of our long-term carbon reduction destination. Second, it must insist on the near-term introduction of policies to drive urgent action by industry. CCC chair Lord Deben summed it up: "We must now increase our ambition to tackle climate change. The science demands it; the evidence is before you; we must start at once; there is no time to lose"
Alongside Government, the infrastructure industry has a unique role to play. Infrastructure development and roll-out is identified by the CCC as one of the key limiting factors in speeding up the rate of decarbonisation. Expanding and strengthening water, transport and power networks is still necessary, but this must be achieved without emitting greenhouse gases. It calls for new skills and approaches to the planning, delivery and management of infrastructure. It requires increasing integration across infrastructure sectors, exemplified by the current electrification of transport and rise of smart cities. Collaboration, innovation and pragmatism are needed. Our industry must rise together to this challenge.
Mobilising at the scale and pace required to reach net zero will also create opportunities for the infrastructure industry to grow, reskill and create jobs. This is part of the optimism that underpins the CCC’s analysis. The UK can benefit from an economic boost to industry by being an early mover in key sectors, such as finance and engineering for low-carbon technologies. With the right support the UK is well placed to benefit in terms of exports, productivity and employment.
Much already exists to enable accelerated decarbonisation of infrastructure. The Government’s Infrastructure Carbon Review sets out the fundamental principles for cutting carbon (and cost). The world’s first standard for managing infrastructure carbon, PAS 2080, sets out how to do it. Working under direction of the Government-sponsored Green Construction Board’s Infrastructure Working Group (GCB-IWG), Mott MacDonald was lead author for both. There is an informed and experienced community centred around the GCB-IWG.
Over the last five years Mott MacDonald has been developing core capabilities to tackle climate change, incorporating carbon into our corporate decision making by assessing the carbon footprint of all projects with a value over £10M, regardless of whether clients require it, at our own cost. We have recently decided we won’t work on new coal fired power plants. Corporately, we recognise that we have a social duty of care that encompasses climate change, making us responsible for proactively limiting it.
However we know we have a lot further to go. Over the coming months we will be working with other industry partners – clients, investors, contractors, suppliers and fellow consultants – to assess the implications of net zero for the infrastructure sector, to map out a pathway to 2050 and the steps needed to get us there.
The infrastructure industry built the modern economy that has delivered the prosperity society today expects. But it has been based on the burning of fossil fuels and climate change. Now our industry has the responsibility, and the privilege, to build a net-zero economy fit for the future, one capable of halting global warming and creating the conditions for prosperity in the 21st century and beyond.