The continuing imperative for carbon reduction

Adrian Johnson MWH

The IPCC’s stark warning on climate change this week is the strongest call yet for infrastructure professionals to deliver radical carbon reduction across the sector, as advocated by the Infrastructure Carbon Review, says Adrian Johnson of MWH.

Until recently, given the lack of coverage in the popular and professional press, you might have thought the urgent need to address climate change had gone away. But this week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its most important and stark report yet. The IPCC warned that unless carbon emissions fall sharply to zero climate change will inflict “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” on the people and natural life of the planet.

"It is really important to pay close attention to the hierarchy for carbon reduction. While significant savings can be made during design and then construction, it is making the right decisions in the early stages of project development that really matter."

Even if we are to keep atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations to 450ppm CO2e in order to avoid more than a 2°C increase in global temperature, renewable energy will have to grow to 80% by 2050 and fossil fuel power generation without carbon capture has to be phased out.

As professionals, we have a lot of work to do.

The UK’s Infrastructure Carbon Review highlighted that infrastructure and related areas like energy currently account for around half of all UK carbon emissions. And this proportion will only increase as power generation becomes decarbonised. Of course, as the ICR sets out, cutting the volume of materials consumed in constructing new assets and using existing resources more efficiently will reduce cost as well as carbon. The ICR is a landmark document; it clearly exhorts the construction sector to play its part and has rightly secured endorsements from key players.

It is really important to pay close attention to the hierarchy for carbon reduction. While significant savings can be made during design and then construction, it is making the right decisions in the early stages of project development that really matter. This opportunity curve is at the heart of a truly sustainable approach and is embraced by the ICR.

At MWH we have long advocated this. Thus, we fully endorse the findings and recommendations of the Infrastructure Carbon Review and will continue to work with clients and partners within the industry to apply the principles it exposes and drive down carbon emissions. We are doing this not only because we think it is right thing to do for the environment, but because it will help us all to deliver better value for money for customers too.

But how do we make real progress?

To actually implement more sustainable solutions – in our time, cost and efficiency driven world – can be a real challenge. Nevertheless as the Infrastructure Carbon Review and other recent publications remind us, adopting a truly sustainable approach is the key to ‘doing more with less’.

Indeed, in its review ‘One year on’ from the ICR launched this October, the Green Construction Board has set out numerous examples of where infrastructure companies are successfully reducing costs by implementing ambitious strategies and effective solutions to reduce carbon.

Making real progress on the ground demands a strong connection to what drives the need for improvements in infrastructure, cultural and behavioural change and some practical guidance for those charged with delivery. 

By way of example, the UK water industry is faced with significant social, environmental and economic pressures. This sector is going through a significant change towards greater focus on the customers it serves and on delivering outcomes rather than outputs. Carbon reduction provides a strong framework for making this happen but only if it is embedded in our organisational cultures and staff behaviour.

The key to success is what Ainger and Fenner call ‘Challenging Orthodoxy’ in their recent book, Sustainable Infrastructure: Principles into Practice, published by the ICE.

Rather than seeing carbon reduction and other sustainability priorities – such as improving resilience and customer outcomes – as mere bolt-ons to what we already do, we must place it at the heart of what we do as a major change management project.

What tools do we have?

As well as the ICR itself, the infrastructure sector does now have some good guidance and tools to help progress efforts for carbon reduction. For example, the ICE’s Carbon Panel has produced a slide pack designed to build on the ICR and provide practical guidance to practitioners in all organisations engaged in infrastructure delivery.

 ‘Sustainable Infrastructure: Principles into Practice’ mentioned above is a practical text, which encourages professional staff engaged at all levels in delivering infrastructure solutions to use the sustainability lens to think first about what outcomes we want to achieve and then to question the scope and scale of solutions before diving in to design new works.

It is a strong framework to help ensure that the hard questions get asked at the right time and to set out some principles for evidenced-based decision-making and embedding sustainability into standard engineering delivery.

There is also more specific guidance has been prepared for various sectors, such as UKWIR’s carbon framework for the water industry, designed to help asset managers select the most cost and carbon efficient solutions on a whole life basis.

So we all need to encourage one another to embed the principles and tools in these guidance documents, and seek to embed them once and for all in our organisational cultures and commit to report our progress. Only then will we start to see the aspirations for low carbon infrastructure start to come to fruition.

Adrian Johnson is technical director at MWH