Is infrastructure an impetus or impediment for a net-zero UK?

Chris Fry, director of infrastructure and regeneration at Ramboll.

With the anticipated shift to an ambitious net-zero emissions target for the UK, the infrastructure sector can lead the transformation if its reach is understood and fully embraced, says Ramboll’s Chris Fry

Now, over a decade on from the 2008 Climate Change Act, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has called for the UK government to adopt a 2050 net-zero emissions target without delay and to utilise public policy and incentivisation as the strongest means of achieving this goal. The report outlines how this transition is perfectly feasible and cost-effective – if handled correctly.  

Businesses, local authorities and communities alike have responded positively, eager for a long-term policy framework that drives action and enables investment in the new business models and infrastructure required to drive down carbon emissions. 

The CCC leaves no room for doubt about the importance of infrastructure in this decarbonisation transformation, stating that “major infrastructure decisions need to be made in the near future and quickly implemented”. And so, with the scene now set, will infrastructure take centre stage and become a lead character as one of humanity’s most important narratives unfolds?  

In its recommendations for delivering a net-zero target, the CCC report highlights that developing infrastructure should be among the top seven priority obstacles for the government to address. This encompasses many things – not least the identification, financing and timely delivering of shared infrastructure for smart electricity, but also hydrogen and CO2 transport and storage. This in turn entails regional coordination where powers are devolved, such as surface transport.

Strengthening policy-making, including working across government departments, is also a moot issue for the infrastructure sector, as recognised in the National Infrastructure Commission’s formation and its subsequent work to reimagine itself in a digitally-enabled world.  

Infrastructure is also highly relevant to overcoming the other obstacles prioritised by the CCC. Engaging the public to act and ensuring that businesses respond are certainly areas where infrastructure constructors, asset owners and service operators can lead communication and behaviour change. Think, for example, of the success of Transport for London’s travel planning campaigns associated with the 2012 Olympics.  

Determining who pays, providing the skills and ensuring a just transition are known conundrums in long term infrastructure planning, not least how to share risk, marrying public and private investment and appreciating where costs and benefits fall in time and space. 

The CCC’s recommendations that HM Treasury should undertake a comprehensive review of how the transition will be funded and where the costs will fall; that the government should ensure that skills gaps and that the overall transition is perceived as fair so that vulnerable workers and consumers are protected, will be welcomed by the infrastructure sector.  

Elsewhere in the report, the importance of innovation is addressed and it is clear that this is not just “more of the same” to design, build and operate the individual pieces of infrastructure better. A dynamic approach will be needed, with the CCC recognising that potential innovations (e.g. carbon capture and storage) will need to interact with wider systems, including supporting infrastructure. 

The infrastructure sector can also pinpoint opportunities to invest or intervene to achieve co-benefits, such as for economic productivity, alongside decarbonisation. In that way, infrastructure will doubtlessly play a key role in many parts of the net-zero transformation. Though if only in the eight areas discussed, the infrastructure sector clearly needs to consciously use its many tentacles to influence and achieve net-zero.

Chris Fry is director of infrastructure and regeneration at Ramboll.