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Infrastructure: Lower carbon Britain

The ICE’s latest State of the Nation report makes it clear that infrastructure will be at the heart of the transition to a low carbon Britain − and many of the changes that need to be made are already within reach. Jo Stimpson explains why.

Energy, transport, water and waste − the infrastructure networks society relies on most, are also some of the largest sources of carbon emissions, whether through their construction, operation, use or maintenance.

And being as it is a critical prop to people’s lifestyles, infrastructure is inextricably linked with the behavioural changes that must be made to combat climate change. The ICE has opted to study how the two are connected, and how both can be shifted into a low carbon future.

A recent survey by the institution has found four out of five people believe climate change is a serious risk to their way of life and are willing to make personal sacrifices to combat it.

“We need to transform the infrastructure that makes up the fabric of society and underpins economic activity.”

ICE president Paul Jowitt

In fact, 47% of respondents are prepared to make “moderate” or “significant” sacrifices for the cause. But genuine lifestyle change on a significant scale is difficult − and even unfeasible − without the right infrastructure to support it.

In its State of the Nation report, Low Carbon Infrastructure, ICE president Paul Jowitt says the UK must create infrastructure within which the only real choices are low carbon ones.

“Public behaviour is restricted by the choices available to them,” he says. “We need to transform the infrastructure that makes up the fabric of society and underpins economic activity.”

In other words, if the right infrastructure is built and used, then behavioural changes will follow − and if there is no systemic change on the scale required, high carbon living will inevitably persist.

“Our inquiry suggests that behaviour change, infrastructure and political action are interrelated,” says Jowitt. “Changing the behaviour of people and organisations will be vital if we are to achieve the shift we need.”

Managing demand

Demand management can be crucial to affecting behaviour, says the report. Measures that encourage conscious choices by users can help to reduce demand and increase efficiency.

Examples given by the ICE include smart metering for water and power to give consumers the information they need to use resources more efficiently, and measures such as workplace parking limits and road user charging to encourage the use of public transport.

The government will need to be open and honest about the downsides of such measures, says the report, to avoid legal challenge and public protest. Work must be done to ensure a proper and realistic understanding of the threat of climate change and the need for lifestyle sacrifices. This can in turn enable a public consensus on the need for firm measures to manage demand.

“Our inquiry suggests that behaviour change, infrastructure and political action are interrelated.”

ICE president Paul Jowitt

The ICE has hailed waste management as an example of how this can work well. Clear targets, the Landfill Tax and threats of fines for local authorities have slowed the growth of waste and increased recycling and reuse − all of which has been underpinned by new infrastructure for the sorting, recovery, reprocessing and energy extraction of waste.

The Landfill Tax is paid on top of normal landfill or gate fees by businesses and local authorities wanting to dispose of waste at landfill sites. As landfill tax rates have risen − now above £35 per tonne and set to rise further − more systems for delivering renewable energy and supplying alternative disposal routes have been built.

Waste producers have been successfully encouraged to divert valuable material from landfill into more environmentally friendly solutions such as recycling, composting and energy from waste. The tax reflects the environmental cost of landfill in monetary terms, forcing waste producers to take the full cost of their actions into account.

Transforming infrastructure

There must be action within the engineering profession and the industries it serves. Carbon reduction cannot be taken as a stand-alone effort, separate from the rest of engineers’ work. Consideration of carbon needs to be present throughout the process in commissioning, design, procurement, construction, use and maintenance.

Carbon must become a key design constraint, says the ICE, just as cost, materials availability and health and safety already are. The life cycle carbon of a project must be considered regularly, and early in the decision making process. The ICE has pledged to take a lead on developing design methodologies, materials selection techniques and procurement tools to drive and assist this.

Developing a systems approach is another key challenge. This means understanding the carbon implications of interactions between infrastructure assets, people and machines, and looking at emissions in terms of whole networks rather than disjointed individual pieces of infrastructure.

offshore wind

Short term: In its inquiry the ICE has identified a range of low carbon solutions that can be delivered in the short, medium and long term. Viable short term solutions include the implementation of onshore and offshore wind

Achieving this will require knowledge-sharing and collaboration between professionals in all disciplines of engineering and built environment. Infrastructure UK, a new body to be created by the government to identify and oversee the country’s long term infrastructure needs, can be instrumental in promoting and facilitating this, says the ICE.

Finally, accepted standard models for measuring lifecycle carbon impact must be developed. This will enable accurate and effective action and help in ensuring that the right infrastructure decisions are made.

The ICE says it is committed to working with partners to develop standardised carboncounting methodologies to drive this change.

Infrastructure solutions

In its inquiry the ICE has identified a range of low carbon solutions that can be delivered in the short, medium and long term.

Viable short term solutions include the implementation of onshore and offshore wind, an upgrade of the energy grid with additional transmission capacity to support large new renewables, an energy supergrid across Europe, combined heat and power plants to capture and use waste heat and the electrification of the rail network.

In the medium term, nuclear could be a source of base-load power, carbon capture and storage could keep coal in the energy mix and there is time for further development of wave and tidal power. Heat pumps could reduce emissions from heat production, energy from waste could unlock hidden value, high speed rail could be an alternative to some air travel, and a charging grid for low carbon vehicles may be needed.

Finally, the ICE’s long term view takes in large scale solar farms and technologies such as nuclear fusion, which could provide secure base-load electricity. Further research and financial support is needed to develop nuclear fusion, which still remains a laboratory technology, says the ICE.

Overarching recommendations

The inquiry produced some overarching recommendations for the government, infrastructure owners and clients and the engineering and built environment professions, which will help those bodies to affect successful low carbon infrastructure for the UK.

The first is for the government to create an environment in which the lifecycle carbon impact of infrastructure assets and networks is key to decision-making − that is, the long term impact of carbon reducing infrastructure should be taken into account when major projects’ viability is assessed, and the planning system, regulation, procurement, supply chain management, financing and fiscal policy should all be aligned to the carbon reduction goal.

The second recommendation is that infrastructure owners and clients should focus on implementing efficiency and demand management measures, and should create clear plans for rolling out proven low carbon technologies.

Thirdly, the ICE recommends that engineers and other built environment professionals develop a systems approach to managing carbon impact across the UK’s interdependent energy, transport, waste and water networks.

With these aims in mind, the ICE believes Britain can set itself firmly on the path towards low carbon infrastructure, by taking first steps that include:

  • The rapid shift of energy supply to low carbon sources
  • The electrification of transport
  • A reduced demand for energy, transport, water and waste management facilities

Many of the low carbon technologies needed already exist but are being constrained by unfavourable conditions for their delivery, says the report.

They could become a reality − but only with the support of the government, industry and engineers, and a commitment to making the low carbon philosophy an indelible thread running through all infrastructure. “We need to make low carbon behaviour the norm,” says Jowitt.

The ICE’s recommendations in full

Government as policy maker should:

  • Task Infrastructure UK with promoting a systems approach to managing carbon across infrastructure networks and co-ordinating low carbon policy across relevant government departments
  • Task Infrastructure UK with monitoring progress of implementation of relevant aspects of the low carbon transition plan and triggering remedial action where necessary
  • Facilitate the creation of a common methodology for accounting for the lifecycle carbon footprint of infrastructure
  • Signal that it will guarantee a minimum (floor) price of carbon in the medium to long term
  • Press for reform in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme for realistic pricing of carbon for all emissions
  • Fully implement the Planning Act 2008 to speed up the process for delivering low carbon infrastructure
  • Ensure Local Development Frameworks and Supplementary Planning Guidance enable the creation of low carbon infrastructure at the local level
  • Create a National Infrastructure Investment Bank to ensure that sufficient capital is available at affordable rates
  • Expand the role of regulators so the reduction of carbon is a fundamental driver in determining both infrastructure investment and consumer price

Infrastructure owners/clients (including government as client) should:

  • Prioritise energy efficiency and demand management measures
  • In the short term (five to 10 years) focus on rolling out known technologies at scale
  • Establish carbon abatement as a key determinant in procurement procedures and options appraisal for new infrastructure projects

The engineering profession should:

  • Develop methodologies and skills for managing carbon across infrastructure systems
  • Develop methodologies and skills to ensure carbon is a key design constraint
  • Lead debate on detailed priority actions and technologies for decarbonising infrastructure networks
  • Lead debate on trade offs and constraints on choice that may be required to maximise emission reductions

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