Industry

23 OCT 2018

INFRASTRUCTURE’S PATHWAY TO ZERO CARBON

The infrastructure sector has a key role to play in reducing global emissions and needs to be part of the solution, says Chris Fry.

The infrastructure sector needs to dramatically scale up the adoption of low carbon solutions for energy, urban and other infrastructure to play its part in in kerbing global warming to 1.5°C.

The rationale for more concerted action to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is set out clearly in the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report. Appreciable differences are expected when comparing the probable consequences of 1.5°C versus 2°C of warming for the arctic, river and coastal flooding, terrestrial ecosystems, crop yields and heat-related illness, and life expectancy and other impacts. 

Directly or indirectly, infrastructure is at the heart of this problem and should therefore also be involved in many of the potential solutions. Appropriate infrastructure, or the lack of it, facilitates or constrains the way that homes and industries are powered and heated, the way that people and goods move and so on. 

The IPCC report identifies the need for rapid and far-reaching transitions to achieve deep emissions reductions in all sectors. It recognises that many different technologies and other options will be needed, underpinned by significantly more investment. Interestingly, the IPCC does not consider the necessary response to be unprecedented in terms of the speed required. However, the sheer scale of system-wide transitions is unparalleled – so humankind is in uncharted waters. 

Looking back over the past 30 years to 1990, the baseline year for global GHG reduction targets, there are success stories of relatively rapid carbon reduction. 75% of the UK’s emissions reduction since 2012 has been associated with the decarbonisation of electricity generation through the adoption of renewable energy sources, not least the expansion of offshore wind. However, the energy transition, and many other examples of infrastructure decarbonisation, are still very much “unfinished business”. 

Cement production for use in construction accounts for 8% of global carbon emissions - larger than any single country bar the US and China. Although cement’s carbon intensity has fallen by 18% since 1990, the best available technologies and practices are not yet widely adopted. In the meantime, global cement demand has tripled, driven by rapid urbanisation and infrastructure for economic growth. 

The last few decades have also seen the emergence of blue-green infrastructure through the introduction of sustainable urban drainage systems (SuDS), green roofs/walls and latterly landscape scale solutions that serve to capture carbon as well as reduce flood risk. However, whilst inspiring examples have been created, the speed and scale of uptake on the UK’s infrastructure networks and cities have been hampered by misaligned planning policy, utility regulation and market intervention to de-risk uptake of less established designs. 

By April 2019 the Committee on Climate Change will advise government on how and by when the UK can effectively eliminate carbon emissions from the economy, including whether to accelerate the current 2050 target (an 80% reduction on 1990 levels). In so doing it will propose the steps required and the associated costs and benefits across all sectors in the context of global technological transformation.

In encouraging the work to consider and test the further actions required for the next 30 years, the IPCC highlights six “feasibility factors”: environmental/natural resource feasibility, technological feasibility, economic feasibility, social/cultural feasibility, institutional feasibility and geophysical feasibility. More specifically for the UK’s infrastructure system, achieving the unprecedented scale of change required may perhaps revolve around two dynamics: 

Firstly, an unprecedented level of collaboration, with the progressive evolution of policies for regulated and unregulated markets to enable the best technologies, ideas and business models to be shared and adopted. Collaboration would also enable the rate of decarbonisation to be locked in and ideally amplified through a system of systems approach, for example the interplay between power generation, battery storage and energy use in fully electrified transport systems. 

Secondly, unprecedented asset optimisation, on a whole-life basis. This would encompass our mixed assets of grey and blue-green, ageing and new infrastructure. New ways of valuing and trading will have a part to play here such as the recognition of carbon and natural capital/environmental net gain in accounting and investment decisions. Controls, automation and other smart technologies that improve the capacity and longevity of our roads, railways, utilities will also enable this - as long as the systems are optimised with carbon emissions in mind. 

Chris Fry is director, infrastructure and regeneration at Ramboll, and a member of the advisory board of the Environmental Industries Commission.

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