"Once-in-a-generation opportunity to recalibrate economy”

The relationship between infrastructure and the 2050 net-zero target is the focus of this year’s State of the Nation 2020. The report, published today, sets out a range of policy interventions.

State of the Nation 2020: Infrastructure and the 2050 net-zero target
State of the Nation 2020: Infrastructure and the 2050 net-zero target

The UK has a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to recalibrate the economy” and build a net zero future, says the Institution of Civil Engineers.

The Covid-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented chance to reset the way we design, build and operate infrastructure in the future. To achieve the ambitious 2050 target, and with infrastructure making up more than 60% of total UK emissions, a systemic and wholesale change to the procurement and delivery of infrastructure across the UK is needed.

The UK was already failing to meet the less ambitious target of 80% reduction by 2050, so action to make significant changes in infrastructure delivery must happen now, the ICE sets out in its State of the Nation 2020: Infrastructure and the 2050 Net-Zero Target..

Keith Howells, ICE Vice President and State of the Nation Steering Group Chair, said:

“The climate emergency and net zero transition present an unprecedented challenge for engineers to solve. We have a critical role and responsibility to do all we can to aid society in this important transformation, but we need a supportive environment that empowers us, and influences users’ behaviours.

“The pandemic provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to recalibrate the economy and create systemic and wholesale change to the infrastructure ecosystem. Our report outlines how, through collaboration and change, we can plan, build and operate infrastructure that meets the needs of the future.”

What is State of the Nation?

ICE produces a State of the Nation each year which sets out a range of policy interventions. These interventions are aimed at ensuring the UK has high-performing infrastructure networks that facilitate economic growth and improve quality of life for those living across the nations.

Each year, the report focuses on a relevant and pertinent topic. In previous years it’s focused on housing, infrastructure investment, digital transformation and devolution.

Setting out a plan for a net-zero future

Published today, the 2020 report outlines actions and policy interventions that should be considered to encourage the sector, and the UK economy more widely, move in this direction. These include a Net-Zero Infrastructure Plan, to set a strategic direction for the built environment sector; reform of the government’s Green Book, to better reflect the net-zero target in project appraisals and assessment; and updating models of regulation to further promote the achievement of net zero.

The final section of the report also sets out actions being undertaken by the Institution for it to continue supporting the built environment sector in the transition to net zero. Through a long-term programme of collaborative work, ICE will seek to share knowledge and best practice on delivering low-carbon solutions across the industry.

What the public think

In recognising that achieving the net-zero target is everyone’s responsibility, the Institution surveyed the public about who, and where, changes should be made. Around two thirds of British adults surveyed thought the UK Government (69%) and business (65%) were mainly responsible for reaching the target. However, only one third (31%) said they thought the government had a plan to achieve this.

Industry responds

Sir John Armitt, Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, said:

“This important contribution further underlines the need for our economic recovery to be one that not only supports job retention and creation, but places at its heart the need to de-carbonise and cut emissions drastically and for good. The report highlights a number of practical steps government, regulators and others can take to enable this transition, many of which align with the Commission’s own recommendations. I hope it will be studied carefully as government considers the detail of its infrastructure plans over the coming weeks and months.”

Wes Streeting MP, Labour’s Shadow Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury said:

“This report should serve as a wake-up call to Government that we will fail to meet our net-zero target unless the Government makes the big decisions now on the long-term infrastructure investment we will need to get us there.

“The Government’s National Infrastructure Strategy with a green recovery at the heart of it is now long overdue. It’s time for the Chancellor to come forward with a plan to deliver the net-zero infrastructure plan our country needs.”

Dr Jennifer Schooling, State of the Nation Steering Group Member and Director of the Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC), at the University of Cambridge, said:

“Despite the Covid-19 pandemic having a dramatic impact on all our lives, its impact on global CO2 emissions has been relatively small. If industry, government and academia work together, we can create a framework for recovery to embed low-carbon, low-waste outcomes into projects, with the potential for real transformation in industry practice. The stakes are high; if we fail, we risk creating an even greater burden for future generations to deal with.”

Dr Schooling addresses the theme of zero carbon, resource constraint and resilience in her article for this year’s CSIC Annual Review. 

Find out more about the report and its recommendations from Keith Howells on our infrastructure blog. Or, hear from ICE Policy Manager Alex Hardy about why we focused this year’s report on achieving net-zero.

You can also read more about the process of creating the report.

Read the report