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Infrastructure in 2014: Crunching carbon cutting cost

A new report highlights the strong correlation between carbon reduction and commercial efficiency, offering a potential £1.5bn benefit to the UK infrastructure sector.

If you aspire to deliver projects with lower carbon footprints, but you’re blocked from playing your part because you’re not getting a mandate from above, then know this: you’re not alone.

This is the plight of manufacturers and suppliers, contractors, technical advisors, designers, clients, and even regulators. Organisations at all levels of the infrastructure sector are saying the same thing: they understand that they should be reducing carbon, but they are obstructed in responding to the opportunities that arise.

Suppliers and manufacturers say they lack opportunities to share their innovations with clients and develop them further, because clients don’t ask for low carbon products.

Clients want to reduce carbon and enjoy the associated operational efficiencies, but they say their regulatory environment does not support action on carbon

Designers and technical advisors say they are engaged on projects when it’s already too late for them to effect any significant carbon reductions. Even if they are engaged early, carbon reduction is not in their scope, and so they fear criticism for challenging clients on the subject.

Contractual requirements dictate what contractors do, and they say that clients just aren’t demanding that they deliver low carbon construction.

Clients want to reduce carbon and enjoy the associated operational efficiencies, but they say their regulatory environment does not support action on carbon, and ownership and current commercial models sometimes inhibit the long term thinking required for whole life cost and carbon planning.

Regulators say that without a clear governmental mandate to address carbon, they can’t take action. But the government’s perspective is that, if carbon reduction makes so much sense, organisations should be getting on with it anyway.

Although steps are being taken toward low carbon construction at every level, blockages throughout the value chain are preventing the industry from unleashing its full arsenal of carbon-reducing techniques.

How can things get moving? The Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills set out to answer that question by producing the Infrastructure Carbon Review together with the Green Construction Board, whose Infrastructure Working Group commissioned Mott MacDonald to research and author the review and its supporting technical report.

Conceived as a sister document to 2010’s Infrastructure Cost Review, the Infrastructure Carbon Review details how industry leaders should set about enabling and fuelling change in their own spheres of influence.

“The recommendations present a compelling case and a platform for industry and the Government to continue to work in partnership to deliver the UK’s infrastructure needs whilst contributing to the UK’s emissions targets,” says HM Treasury head of infrastructure tracking and performance Alan Couzens.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for the UK to establish itself as a world leader in delivering lower-carbon and lower-cost infrastructure solutions, strengthening global competitiveness and creating export opportunities for industry.”

The Infrastructure Carbon Review makes it clear that there is a convincing business case for cutting carbon, because reductions in carbon often go hand-in-hand with reductions in cost. This is partly because carbon acts as a proxy for resource efficiency, and because pursuing a low carbon, low cost agenda stimulates innovation, making businesses more competitive. The report points out that if current low carbon best practices were adopted across the infrastructure sector, they would deliver a £1.5bn benefit.

Still, the environmental arguments are impossible to dismiss. The UK has committed to achieving an 80% carbon emissions reduction by 2050, against the 1990 baseline, and infrastructure accounts for 53% of the UK’s current total carbon emissions.

Specifically, 16% of the UK’s total emissions are associated with constructing, operating and maintaining infrastructure assets - that is, the emissions directly controlled by the industry, as opposed to those under the control of infrastructure’s end users. The Infrastructure Carbon Review focuses specifically on how carbon can be reduced through the ways in which infrastructure is constructed, operated and maintained.

This topic is distinct from the related but separate issue of decarbonising the UK’s energy supply.

When the Infrastructure Carbon Review was launched at the Treasury last month, Mott MacDonald and 24 other industry leaders from throughout the value chain - including clients, consultants, contractors and industry associations - made official commitments detailing how they will take practical action on the report’s recommendations. These organisations will update the Green Construction Board on their progress in spring 2014.

“There was real commitment from the senior leaders,” says Mott MacDonald group practice manager for water and environment and Infrastructure Carbon Review lead author Mark Enzer. “This was something they wanted to take forward.”

It isn’t only executive leaders who can gain from the review: leaders at all levels can contribute to the change. Accordingly, on the day following the report’s launch, Mott MacDonald brought together a large group of other senior figures for a “Carbon Crunch” seminar at the ICE.

There was real commitment from the senior leaders

Mark Enzer, Mott MacDonald


These attendees heard from chief construction advisor to the government Peter Hansford that the Infrastructure Carbon Review will play an integral role in supporting Construction 2025, the government’s ambitious industrial strategy for construction.

“When I came into this role, cost and carbon were in two different silos. The Infrastructure Carbon Review joins them together,” says Hansford.

The Infrastructure Carbon Review contains a carbon maturity matrix identifying a comprehensive list of areas where action should be taken. Three of these stand out in particular: leadership, innovation and procurement.

“Leadership is crucial,” says Enzer. “You have to create the environment and the imperative for change.” At the Carbon Crunch seminar, debate raged about where the greatest leadership potential lay. Client representatives testified to the power of regulators to dictate their priorities, while others argued that clients needed to take the initiative themselves.

And there were differing opinions on whether legislation is required to trigger action in the industry, reflecting the debate that emerged during the interviews that informed the Infrastructure Carbon Review, according to Enzer.


Leadership is crucial. You have to create the environment and the imperative for change.

Mark Enzer, Mottt MacDonald

“Some interviewees said that unless there’s legislation there will be no movement,” he recounts. “But a much larger number of people said that we don’t need more legislation; we just need more leadership across the value chain. So what we’re saying in the review is that leadership is going to make more of a difference than legislation.”

Enzer cites building information modelling (BIM) as a good model for this. There has been no BIM-specific legislation, but a strong government mandate to embed BIM into all publicly procured projects by 2016 has impelled the industry to act.

Anglian Water is one client that has demonstrated low carbon leadership. Following a mandate from water regulator Ofwat to report embodied and operational carbon, the company has set itself a goal to halve embodied carbon in newly built assets by 2015 (from a 2010 baseline), and to reduce operational carbon emissions by 10% in real terms by 2015 (from a 2010 baseline).

Two elements of leadership that have propelled these goals forward, says Anglian Water carbon manager David Riley, are an organisation-level understanding of why carbon reduction is important and beneficial for the company; and board-level drive and support for the goals.

Employee and supplier “Drop CO2” awards recognise and endorse good practice from above, and Anglian Water challenges schemes on three separate occasions before site works commence, to ensure carbon is as low as possible. “You need a robust governance process in place to make sure carbon has been addressed and the value provided is credible,” says Riley.

In practical terms, a number of tools and processes contribute to minimising carbon in Anglian Water projects. These include a carbon modeller tool, which helps engineers to understand where the biggest carbon reductions can be made. For example, calculations showed that when an SDR17 HPPE pipe was laid under a road, only 11% of the total CO2 was in the pipe material itself, while 89% was accounted for by excavation, laying and backfill. Accordingly, Anglian Water prioritised the use of no-dig techniques over simply sourcing different pipe products.

Innovation has a clear role to play in devising new ways to reduce infrastructure’s carbon footprint. “Innovation is the engine that makes the change possible - it’s where the original ideas come from within the supply chain,” says Enzer. “There is real innovation at the lower end of the value chain, and not just in low carbon products; it’s also in better, cleverer schemes.”

Highways Agency head of sustainability Dean Kerwick-Chrisp spoke at the Carbon Crunch seminar on what his organisation is doing to foster innovation and challenge standards. As an executive agency of the Department for Transport, the Highways Agency is delivering on the Greening Government Commitments, which include a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2015 (against a 2009-10 baseline).

The Highways Agency is encouraging its suppliers to innovate in the construction methods and materials they use, finding lower carbon and lower cost options.

This could include using materials with a longer design life and less embodied carbon, or more recycled content, or it could be a case of sourcing materials nearer to site and reusing materials on site in order to minimise transportation movements.

However, one of the Agency’s biggest single carbon-saving opportunities lies in road lighting, which is responsible for 70% of its network’s energy consumption. The Agency is innovating in this area by applying latest lighting standards to explore dimming and switch-off opportunities, and has assisted in the revision of British Standard 5489 for road lighting. Small changes in this area add up quickly: dimming could result in energy savings of 15% to 30%, while switching lights off during the small hours could reduce energy use by 40%. 

“We are a safety-first organisation and are not simply turning off all our lighting, but a 2007 review of the benefits of lighting found that it is not preventing accidents at the rates expected, so we can direct resources to more beneficial safety issues,” says Kerwick-Chrisp. “Early evidence suggests that switching off lights along carefully selected stretches of motorway hasn’t had an adverse impact on safety.” The Agency is in the early years of its carbon-reducing journey, says Kerwick-Chrisp, but self-scrutiny is helping it to identify the best opportunities for innovation.

Organisations need to ensure they don’t overestimate or misunderstand the risk of innovating, Enzer adds. “If we haven’t come across a particular innovation before, we automatically assume there is inherent risk in it,” he says. “But someone else might have a lot of experience of it. The key thing is talking to those people and changing the perception.”

Clients’ understanding and acceptance of risk can also be improved through extensive testing of innovations under longer term development programmes, and consultants can help clients to understand risk, how it changes and how it can be managed, and to develop risk sharing commercial arrangements.

Procurement is also essential to cutting carbon and cost, as it fundamentally defines what is required from suppliers.

“The supply chain often feels trapped and unable to respond to the challenge, but procurement can provide the means that enable them to innovate,” says Enzer. “One way clients could release the change that’s required is by challenging suppliers to deliver lower carbon and lower cost at the same time.”

UK Power Networks head of engineering design Allan Ponsonby attended the Carbon Crunch seminar and shared his organisation’s approach to procurement. Commercial and procurement techniques used by the organisation include top-down target costs, KPI-aligned incentives and collaborative incentive mechanisms.

Ponsonby also espouses the benefits of creating long term relationships with suppliers, and leveraging certainty of the upcoming programme to enable suppliers to plan ahead and innovate across multiple projects - such as through the use of frameworks.

UK Power Networks, which delivers electricity to 8M homes and businesses across London, the east of England and the South East, also seeks to specify schemes in a way that avoids locking in one particular technical solution, and gives suppliers greater freedom to innovate, says Ponsonby. “They can then turn it on its head and look for a completely different technical solution that might be significantly more efficient, but you need a commercial model to drive that innovation.”

This thinking ties in with the carbon reduction curve, identified in the Infrastructure Carbon Review, which shows that large proportions of carbon emissions and costs can be minimised at an early project stage by finding alternative ways to achieve the necessary outcomes with less new building required.

At later stages, design optimisation, innovative construction and other techniques can be used to further reduce carbon - but key decisions may have already locked in a base level of resource use and carbon emissions.

The greatest outcomes will be achieved by making the most of all opportunities to innovate throughout a project’s lifecycle.

The Infrastructure Carbon Review has thrown down the gauntlet to infrastructure leaders by identifying the best carbon reducing strategies. It is now up to organisations to digest the recommendations and exploit the opportunity to gain a leading edge on both carbon and cost.

“The Infrastructure Carbon Review will help to build understanding about the value of joining up the innovators at the bottom of the value chain with the people higher up who have the keys to unlock that innovation,” says Enzer.

“Every organisation will have to work out the best answer for itself, but the direction of travel is clear.

“The challenge for the industry now is to get behind the review’s findings and deliver the change that’s needed.”

Industry comments

Attendees at the Carbon Crunch seminar swapped notes on their greatest carbon-cutting challenges and opportunities.

“Carbon as the primary driver alone doesn’t work. The cost savings are a key motivator in why people do it.”
Client organisation climate change manager

“We’re facing constraints around getting access to data on embodied carbon, and the lack of a directly visible relationship between the carbon and cost of each project element.”
Aviation sector professional

“The lack of specifications and drive from clients is our biggest constraint.”
Civil engineer employed by contractor

“Regulators are in a really strong position to drive the change. For us, pushing up bills today in order to bring them down in 20 years’ time is a difficult argument for us to make.”
Client organisation representative

  • The Infrastructure Carbon Review is available to read at

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