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Civil Engineer blog

3 less obvious benefits of reducing carbon

05 October 2021

Ben Hellawell, from an ICE Carbon Champion project team, explains some of the advantages of lowering carbon emissions in infrastructure that might not be the first ones that come to mind.

3 less obvious benefits of reducing carbon
Talent will line up to work for your carbon-focussed organisation. Image credit: Shutterstock

From the list below, if I asked you to pick the benefits that reducing ‘carbon’ (a word used as shorthand for the global warming potential of all key greenhouse gases) has in the design, delivery, use and maintenance of our infrastructure, which would you pick?

  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Reducing costs.
  • Helping keep average temperatures less than two degrees above pre-industrial levels.
  • Driving innovation.
  • Helping meet mayoral targets and national law around net zero carbon.
  • Reducing waste.
  • Showing client leadership in response to the climate crisis.
  • Motivating people, attracting talent and developing new skills.

Some are clear and obvious. Carbon emissions increase the heat trapped by the earth’s atmosphere, increasing average temperatures and sea levels, as well as increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events.

Reducing emissions will improve the current trajectory for carbon in the atmosphere. The ultimate extent of the temperature rise will be proportionate to the impact on everything from geopolitics and the global economy to extreme weather and biodiversity.

Some benefits from reducing carbon are less obvious though. I’m now going to explore a few items from the list above that you might not have picked.

1. Reducing costs

In 2013, the Infrastructure Carbon Review was published, which showed that reducing carbon reduces the cost of infrastructure.

This can initially be puzzling, as being green is often assumed to rely on unproven, nascent or expensive methods and technology.

But energy and material usage are analogous to carbon, and reducing them provides savings in the construction and utilisation of infrastructure. It can also provide savings in the design phase that more than offset the cost of carbon modelling and management, as there is less to design.

The standard relationship between carbon and cost – focus initially on areas where reducing carbon reduces cost!
The standard relationship between carbon and cost – focus initially on areas where reducing carbon reduces cost!

The Colindale Station Redevelopment project is the most recent Transport for London (TfL) project to demonstrate that reducing carbon reduces cost, and its efforts have been recognised by ICE’s Carbon Champion initiative.

A relentless focus on building less and reducing waste has led to a 27% reduction in building volume and 48% reduction in back of house floor space (compared to the baseline), while still meeting the requirements.

2. The importance of the client in reducing carbon

Another benefit of managing carbon is that it shows leadership.

In March, a 7 years on report was published to the Infrastructure Carbon Review, which summarises the progress as good, but not fast enough.

It concluded that transport as a sector was a laggard and that there was a “reluctance or inertia among most clients and asset owners to drive ambitious carbon reduction. Rather than embracing the pivotal role of a carbon integrator, most of the carbon management responsibilities and leadership are delegated to the supply chain”.

The Colindale Station Redevelopment is an example of where we set clear requirements in the contract, paid for them as we must, held the supplier to account, shared risk with them and ultimately benefited from the work.

As a client organisation, we must recognise that we are the most important, and often weakest, link in the carbon chain.

3. How carbon reduction motivates and develops people

Leading on carbon reduction has also been shown to increase retention, attract new talent and motivate people. Who wouldn’t want to be part of the response to a challenge that is regularly compared to the global coronavirus pandemic?

Ben Story, a TfL board member, emphasises this in the most recent board meeting.

His ‘day job’ is at Rolls Royce, a company with an innovative business model (airlines pay per hour used for their jet engines, so income has plummeted as planes have been grounded) that has been hit even harder than us by the pandemic.

He said: “We’ve found focusing on the environment and the transition to net zero a really powerful and galvanising theme that gets our people motivated and excited.”

I personally can relate to this and know many others can, too.

What are you doing to reduce carbon?

Not everyone feels comfortable with the plethora of carbon jargon or knows how practically to reduce carbon though.

My message would be that you don’t need to know the terminology, and anyone can do it. You can go a long way by: designing efficiently; challenging requirements appropriately; and asking the supply chain for low carbon solutions in a way that they also benefit.

The carbon reduction hierarchy of building nothing, build less, build clever and build efficiently is also a great mantra that gets results.

So back to the initial list of benefits – they are all products of carbon management! It’s now up to us to lead the way on carbon and realise them.

  • Ben Hellawell MICE CEng, senior project engineer at Transport for London