Infrastructure’s carbon reduction falling short of net-zero target

Achieving net-zero by 2050 will require an unprecedented transformation of the UK’s infrastructure, according to a new ICE report.

Achieving the government’s net zero target by 2050 will require an unprecedented transformation of the UK’s infrastructure, according to a new report by the Institution of Civil Engineers. (ICE).

The vital infrastructure systems on which the UK is built – such as energy, transport and utilities – currently contribute the majority of the UK’s emissions.

The ICE report says that while the 2050 target may seem distant, in many cases the infrastructure currently under development will take decades to deliver and will be operational well beyond 2050. Therefore, says the report, the country needs to act now to ensure the UK’s infrastructure systems are consistent with the net zero target.

Although carbon emissions from UK infrastructure fell by almost a quarter between 2010 and 2018, according to new research, the report shows the rate of reduction needs to accelerate in order to achieve the net-zero target by 2050.

Despite the drop-off in infrastructure carbon, the rate of reduction needs to grow from the current speed of 3% to 4.1%. Experts from ICE’s Carbon Project also note that key changes in electricity supply, including sizeable shifts from fossil fuels to renewable energy and a fall of 10% in overall consumption, were major contributing factors.

It is the first time such emissions data has been updated since the government’s Infrastructure Carbon Review of 2013, with the analysis showing:

  • A 23% reduction in total infrastructure carbon between 2010 and 2018;
  • A 44% reduction of carbon under ‘control’ of the infrastructure industry between 2010 and 2018;
  • Total infrastructure carbon accounts for 54% (419 MtCO2e) of the UK’s consumption-based carbon footprint (773 MtCO2e);
  • Reductions were largely driven by the energy and waste sectors, which contributed total reductions of 37% and 33% respectively;
  • Declines in operational carbon and user carbon, but a 60% increase in capital carbon.

Dr Jannik Giesekam, member of The Carbon Project and research fellow in Industrial Climate Policy at the school of earth and environment, University of Leeds, carried out the analysis.

He said: "To meet the Committee on Climate Change’s trajectory for net zero, we need to be reducing infrastructure carbon emissions by more than 4% a year over the next decade. Every new asset we build, or old asset we retrofit, must be capable of operating in a net zero UK in the near future. Every engineer needs to ask themselves if the project they are working on now is consistent with that net zero vision.

"This data shows the radical transformations in our energy and waste sectors over the past decade delivered reductions of 3% per year. We now need even faster transformations in transport, water and communications. With rising capital carbon emissions and increased stimulus spending on the horizon, our focus must be on ‘building back better’ not just ‘build, build, build’. The recovery from Covid-19 and the upcoming National Infrastructure Strategy present a unique opportunity to invest in the infrastructure that will deliver net zero – it’s crucial we also deliver this infrastructure in a low-carbon way."

The research examines what the data means for infrastructure and the step changes required to achieve net zero, while the wider project is designed to turn recommendations on achieving net zero from the ICE’s 2020 State of the Nation report into reality.

Rachel Skinner, incoming ICE president and chair of The Carbon Project, said: "While reductions in carbon emissions can only be positive and a step in the right direction, this data clearly shows the scale of the challenge – and indeed the vast opportunity – for all infrastructure sectors as we help the UK in meeting its net-zero targets.

"This work represents a key first step in The Carbon Project, formed to encourage collaboration and rapid progress around specific technical topics that will be critical to rapid carbon reduction across multiple infrastructure sectors and markets. This data will help civil engineers to understand and act effectively in reducing carbon emissions throughout our sectors as well as influencing wider industry."

Click here to download State of the Nation 2020: Infrastructure and the 2050 net-zero target.

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