Webinar highlights construction’s vital role in achieving net zero

The construction industry will be vital in achieving net zero, but needs to move much faster to meet sustainability challenges, said the expert panellists at the latest Infrastructure Intelligence webinar, which looked at the hot topic of net zero, writes Rob O'Connor.

The prospects for achieving net zero in a post-pandemic was the key issue up for discussion at the first in a new series of 'Road to Recovery' webinars that will run every Friday morning throughout July, and followed the hugely popular series of 'Coming out of Covid' webinars that saw over 1,000 industry professionals sign up to attend last month.

Hosted by Infrastructure Intelligence editor Andy Walker, the strong line-up of Keith Clarke, former Atkins chief executive and currently chair of Forum for the Future; Julia Pyke, director of financing and economic regulation at Sizewell C; Maria Manidaki, Net Zero carbon practice lead at Mott MacDonald and David Cole, Atkins director for power generation, all made powerful and insightful contributions to the debate.

During the current unprecedented period, leaders have an opportunity to revise their climate plans to accelerate the transition to a zero-carbon economy. Yet, a few days before the webinar, Boris Johnson’s speech on infrastructure investment was high on rhetoric but distinctly light on specific measures to tackle the climate crisis.

The webinar, which was backed by Infrastructure Intelligence Net Zero Hub sponsor Atkins, looked at the prospects for concerted action on climate change and discussed whether the Covid-19 crisis has reframed the debate around this crucial issue.

Keith Clarke made a series of forceful points about the industry’s vital role in achieving net zero but warned that society and other sectors of the economy were already stealing a march on the construction industry in making positive change. Outlining the twin challenges of productivity and long-term planning in achieving net zero, he said: “The construction industry is not the only solution, but we are a vital part of achieving net zero – it cannot be achieved without us,” he said. 

Looking at the immediate steps the industry needs to take, Clarke said: “By 2025 the entire industry should have net zero embedded into everything it does. If we can achieve that, we can look forward to begin achieving positive results by 2030.” Warning that other industries were stealing a march on the construction sector, he said: “Other industries are looking to achieve net zero by 2030 rather than 2050. Why can’t we? It’s disruptive, but we need to support the industry to make that transition. 

“A net zero option should be mandatory when offering solutions to clients, and net zero should be the primary driver of how we design and deliver infrastructure. The market is moving towards net zero – the dynamic of money is extraordinary – but we’re moving much more slowly than society on this.”

David Cole outlined the scale of the challenge of achieving net zero but said the industry should be inspired rather than daunted by the task ahead. Looking at the legal requirement of achieving net zero by 2050, he said an urgent plan and action on a global rather than a national or regional scale was essential to address the climate crisis.

“We’ve got 11,000 days to get this right,” he said. “We know the start point, and the end point of 2050, but we need a net zero plan for the whole of infrastructure – for the good of the whole economy, society, and the planet as a whole. Engineers want to do this! We’ve got the technology and skills available, so let’s do it,” Cole said.

Julia Pyke added that it was important to use today’s technologies while continuing to invest in research and development – and also to take a holistic and community-based approach in finding socially responsible and acceptable ways of achieving net zero. 

Pyke also outlined that mega-projects like Sizewell C presented great opportunities to trial new technologies, and also to collaborate by sharing designs on a global basis. “We’re at the forefront of R&D, and we know we need nuclear to achieve net zero,” she said. 

Maria Manidaki endorsed the previous speakers and, after the prime minister’s much trailed speech a few days earlier, called for a greater emphasis on delivery. “The government said ‘build, build, build, but it should be deliver, deliver, deliver,” she said.

Mandiaki went on to outline a series of questions the industry needed to ask itself in the fight to achieve net zero. “How do we make our regulations smarter and learn from previous experience?” she asked, emphasising that every sector needed to work smoothly together to accelerate low carbon, and that net zero should be embedded into law rather than relying on leadership from individual companies and organisations.

Mandiaki also emphasised the social dimension of achieving net zero, asking how the industry could play its part in helping influence people to change their behaviour and use less energy now, rather than in 20 years’ time. And, looking longer-term, she outlined the importance of both natural solutions and green technology – persuading people to plan and invest now in projects that will see beneficial results by 2050.

Infrastructure Intelligence editor Andy Walker said: “Keith Clarke was absolutely spot-on when he said that the construction sector could stop the rest of UK getting to net zero if it didn’t get things right and change the way it works in the future. The responsibility on our sector to do the right thing is enormous and the entire industry needs to work together to ensure success. It also needs to engage politicians at all levels much more too in order to influence the debate on this crucial issue.”

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