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One question will define where low-carbon goes from here

Davide Stronati

Cutting carbon cuts cost. That was the clear message from the Treasury’s Infrastructure Carbon Review (ICR) in 2013, and again at Mott MacDonald’s annual Carbon Crunch summit, which took place in London on 29 November.

Both the ICR and Carbon Crunch laid bare the direct link between emissions and the amount / type of materials used in infrastructure, and energy used in operation of the asset.

The opportunities are huge. Authors of the ICR estimated that if emerging best practice to reduce carbon was driven across the infrastructure sector, savings of up to four metric tonnes CO2e/year of capital carbon and 20 metric tonnes CO2e/year of operational carbon could be achieved by 2050. This represents a net benefit to the UK economy of up to £1.5bn a year, it added.

Widespread take-up of best practice would mean the sector was making tangible progress towards the UK’s Climate Change Act commitments to slash emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. The UK is also signed up to the 2015 Paris Agreement, under which it will need to emit net zero carbon across the whole economy shortly after 2050.

Patchy progress

The message of the ICR gained widespread support, with more than 60 organisations spanning asset owners, consultants, regulators and suppliers pledging to support its recommendations. But four years on, carbon reduction has not become mainstream across the sector.

Emissions from construction, operation and maintenance of the UK’s infrastructure assets already contributes 16 per cent of the UK’s emissions, while the sector has influence over a further 37 per cent emitted by end-users.

“UKGBC found little similarity in ambition, duration and scope of targets being set by individual companies, and no single method used to set them”

What’s more, the significance of capital carbon from building transport, energy, water and waste assets will rise as operational emissions fall with grid decarbonisation. If construction efficiencies are only modest, they will be offset by the substantial increase in infrastructure construction planned in the near future.

And while there is evidence of good practice and innovation in the infrastructure sector, recent research by UKGBC revealed patchy progress. Its study found little similarity in ambition, duration and scope of targets being set by individual companies, and no single method used to set them.

Target required?

The long gestation period of infrastructure projects means best practice was never going to be scaled overnight. But it is also clear that progress is not matching the ever-steeper trajectory of the challenge. The UKGBC’s conclusion was that a whole-life carbon target was required to drive real innovation, ambition and leadership.

The question of a target for the infrastructure sector was the main subject of debate at Carbon Crunch, which featured presentations from the Infrastructure & Projects Authority (IPA), National Grid, the Environment Agency and Crossrail 2.

The general feeling was that a target would be useful, but would face obstacles. Those in favour suggested goals and deadlines are sometimes needed to galvanise action. An element of competition can be a spur to action. Opponents questioned whether a target covering such a fragmented industry and diverse projects be effective. How would baselines be set? 

We must now accelerate

Higher-productivity construction would intuitively be more carbon efficient, and the government is urging the industry to find major efficiencies to make infrastructure and socioeconomic growth affordable.

“There are real worries that potential profit may not, on its own, be motivation enough”

Rapid acceleration of the low-carbon agenda is needed. Assets in planning now have to be designed and delivered to operate in a net zero emissions future. In 10 years’ time, the relative emissions from infrastructure construction will have risen as those from energy and transport have fallen.

The most progressive companies have set stretching carbon reduction targets for themselves and their suppliers, and gained major capital and operational cost savings as a result. Can others follow their lead? The commercial incentives ought to be enough to stimulate action. 

But there are real worries that potential profit may not, on its own, be motivation enough. If someone asks what emissions reduction plan the infrastructure industry has, is it acceptable to answer that let each organisation was left to come up with their own solution, however weak that may be?

That question will guide the next steps in the low-carbon journey.

Davide Stronati is global head of sustainability at Mott MacDonald

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