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Leadership is urgently needed to unleash innovation and

curb the infrastructure sector's carbon emissions

Maria Manidaki

Transport, water, communications and waste need to act, and fast, to ensure that the UK reduction targets are not missed.

Unless decisive action is taken, carbon emissions arising from the construction and operation of infrastructure assets are set to jump from 50% of the UK total today to 90% by 2050.

This picture isn’t quite as shocking on investigation as it at first appears: Growth of renewable and nuclear energy, and introduction of ‘clean coal’ technologies are expected to result in substantial emissions reductions from power generation, while energy efficiency is advancing rapidly.

But in the race to cut CO2 and meet the UK’s legal obligation under the Climate Change Act – requiring greenhouse gas (carbon) reductions of 50% by 2025 and 80% by 2050, measured against a 1990 baseline – non-energy infrastructure sectors are lagging. As other sectors, such as buildings and manufacturing, shrink their carbon footprints, infrastructure is responsible for a growing share of the national total.

In November 2013 HM Treasury, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills and the Green Construction Board published the Infrastructure Carbon Review, setting out practical steps that clients, suppliers, contractors and government can take to achieve both carbon and cost reductions. It underlined the importance of joining up the value chain to deliver maximum benefit.

Three principal carbon reduction options are on offer:

  • Reducing capital carbon through the reuse of assets, design of lean solutions and the choice of lower carbon construction materials and techniques including design for manufacture and assembly.
  • Cutting operational carbon by using low or no carbon power sources, streamlining processes, matching operating intensity to load, and by designing maintenance regimes that optimise mechanical efficiency.
  • Limiting demand by influencing use patterns or through resource- and by introducing energy-saving measures at point of use.

Innovation is an old challenge for the infrastructure sector but, to achieve meaningful carbon reductions in these three areas, it is vital to unlock it. That requires companies that are ‘carbon mature’ – that have the appropriate governance, knowledge, policy and commercial models – to drive carbon savings and realise the cost savings that follow. Different companies in different parts of the value chain are likely to have different levels of maturity. The infrastructure sector requires those that are more advanced to step forward, to lead and enable others in the value chain. There are numerous companies that have produced or have the potential to produce game-changing solutions. But without the requisite culture, systems, muscle and influence they cannot pass ‘go’.

Asset owners are best placed to provide the leadership that’s so badly needed. Leadership involves everything from setting carbon reduction as an objective to incentivising the supply chain with innovative contract arrangements and stakeholder engagement and communication. Owners need to support collaboration, listen to ideas from the traditionally marginalised bottom tiers of the supply chain, manage the risks associated with new thinking, and keep demanding better.

There is significant scope for reducing emissions in the UK infrastructure sector. Leading companies have shown that pursuing carbon reduction both requires and stimulates innovation. When those innovations are realised, commercialised and implemented, substantial savings follow.

With major reductions to chase, and a legal obligation driving them on, clients, contractors, designers, suppliers and users have never had a better reason to innovate, or so much to gain by doing so.

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