Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

To cut emissions by 80% we are right to focus on carbon

Industry comment by Sir Peter Williams, Royal Academy vice president and chairman of The National Physical Laboratory

When the UK government looked at setting climate change mitigation targets it decided to use a basket of six greenhouse gases (GHGs) as the metric. The result was the Climate Change Act’s commitment to an 80% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050, with a 34% cut required by 2020 − both against 1990 levels.

This might at first sight appear to be at odds with the engineering sector’s focus on cutting carbon − embedded and operational − so is there an incompatibility between government and industrial goals? I would argue absolutely not.

Firstly, when the 2050 target is examined, it can be seen that the vast majority of emissions that need to be cut − 85% − are carbon dioxide (CO2). Secondly, the remaining reduction required in non-CO2 gases is already well underway, although it has to be acknowledged that some of these gases have a disproportionately damaging effect in the atmosphere.

Pressure on CO2 ambitions

According to the Committee for Climate Change (CCC) the inclusion of non-CO2 gases is partly a result of it being far more likely the UK will hit these overall targets − reducing the pressure on the CO2 ambitions.

“There are cost-effective opportunities to reduce non-CO2 emissions,” says the CCC in its report Building a Low-carbon Economy − the UK’s Contribution to Tackling Climate Change. “Where these are part of the accounting framework, they can be substituted for more expensive CO2 emissions reduction, thus reducing the cost of meeting a given GHG target/climate change goal.”

It is also essential to look at what, as a sector, can be achieved, practically and within the time frame. Examining the total package of GHGs in the target, we find CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, hydroflurocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride.

“It is essential to look at what, as a sector, can be achieved within the time frame.”

Non-CO2 gases make up the remaining 15% of GHG emissions. Around half of these come from agriculture, with a further quarter coming from waste management.

Both sectors are already on target to hit their medium and long term targets − with further policy changes planned that make that even more likely. From 1990 to 2006 non-CO2 gases have fallen by 46%, compared with CO2 emissions falling by only 6%.

For the engineering and construction industry, a holistic approach to a basket of GHGs is far less relevant than a focused CO2 abatement strategy. Concentrating our efforts and innovation here will have the greatest effect. Moreover, the metrics for success or failure will be ruthlessly exposed without any ambiguity and be apparent to all stakeholders − an essential discipline if we are to succeed.

A radical transformation

CO2 can also serve as a useful proxy for GHGs in other sectors − for example, the reduction of CO2 emissions to meet the 2020 and 2050 targets will impact all energy producers and users. It is self evident that this in turn implies a radical transformation of the engineering and architectural solutions provided in the power, homes and communities, workplaces, transportation, farming, land management and waste sectors. All are underpinned by early and fundamental improvements in energy efficiency.

Faced with such complexity across a wide industrial front, the engineering and construction sectors are best placed to become pathfinders for change, although no single discipline possesses a silver bullet, a true multidisciplinary approach is required.

“For the engineering and construction industry, a holistic approach to a basket of GHGs is far less relevant than a focused CO2 abatement strategy.”

Professionals must grapple with the government’s target of creating zero carbon homes and schools before 2016; economically sound solutions to renewable sources of energy in wind and wave power must be sought; the science and technology which underpins transportation, must be developed; designers of the cities of the future must work to eliminate the dependency on private vehicles; above all, the energy sector must embrace new technologies, such as carbon capture and storage and continue to focus on minimising the consumption of energy and the consequent emission of CO2.

Developments in the engineering and construction sector are central to all the above. The challenge and targets are well understood. By focusing on CO2 we stand the best chance of achieving our goals.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.