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A systems approach to net-zero

24 August 2020

In order to reach our ambitious net-zero targets by 2050, we need to balance a complex system of infrastructure networks. Tim Chapman, chair of our Carbon Project’s Workstream on Systems-level Reduction in In-use Carbon, explores some of the challenges.

A systems approach to net-zero
Balancing a complex system of infrastructure networks is key to achieving net-zero (image credit: Shutterstock)

Our civilization and whole way of living depends crucially on infrastructure systems working properly – without them, people very quickly become stressed and unhappy, logistics chains break down and the whole economy falters. It turns out that these same systems are currently addicted to fossil fuels and we are only taking our first tentative steps to wean ourselves off them and the consequent discharges of CO2 that they shoot straight up to pollute our atmosphere.

We need to now make much better decisions about which infrastructure to build that will sustain us to 2050 and beyond. The engineering profession needs to work hand in glove with the rest of civil society to agree a series of measures that lead to bold choices that will slash our emissions.

The UK should lead the way

Each country needs to play its own part. While the UK is responsible for 7% of the CO2 already in the atmosphere, its current emissions are less than 2% of global emissions and falling. The UK and other developed countries therefore have an obligation to lead the way in showing how to de-carbonise - and to do it in a way that is sustainable economically and acceptable to the population. This is not a time for so-called experts’to invent utopian schemes that no one will vote for.

The UK has had the best climate change policies, thanks to the fantastic legacy left by Professor David MacKay, author of the seminal book, Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air, and one of the prime architects of the 2008 Climate Change Act. The UK has partially acted on these policies, with the energy sector already transforming itself and moving rapidly towards much cleaner grid electricity.

The rest of the economy has generally been lagging and difficult political and technical decisions have been ducked. There is a strengthening consensus in favour of more radical change, and the Covid emergency has shown that unthinkably radical change can happen when it is needed, and also that the scale of the de-carbonisation mountain is vast – an almost complete shut-down of most of the world’s transport networks for several months may give only a paltry 5% drop in emissions.

So we know that climate change is already happening. Temperatures in the south-east of England are already on average a degree higher than they were in 1960. Extreme weather events are far more frequent. The Committee on Climate Change tell us that we had been on track towards a further four degrees of warming by the end of the current century, which would have devastated the earth and the generally comfortable existence of humankind. Our current policies which fall well short of the Paris commitments might take us to a distinctly toasty three degrees extra.

Net-zero by 2050

If we work really hard across the planet and somehow all humans collaborate towards the ambitious Paris goal of net zero by 2050, then we may get close to the fabled 1.5 to 2 degrees extra, which isn’t nirvana, but probably isn’t utter calamity for our race either. That goal is therefore vital and we have a huge amount to do to get there. There aren’t any viable solutions that arrest global warming even by the end of the century – so we have to adapt too – the only question is by a lot or by the impossibly large.

2050 is only 30 years away. Many of the professional engineers who will be still practicing have already graduated. The gestation of a large project that causes a significant reduction in emissions is perhaps 15 years, think of that all electric transportation system Crossrail or the very low carbon baseload power plant at Hinkley Point.

We therefore need to get on and do as many of these transformational projects as we can as quickly as we can. We will need sustained political support that is consistent and visionary – politicians who forgo the opportunity to deliver jam to constituents now, but choose instead to create projects that deliver jam for those constituents’ children and grandchildren.

So, engineers have lots to do. We need to work with infrastructure providers to clean up all of the systems. We need to invent viable negative emission technologies and implement them at vast scale. We need to create a whole new industry to produce vast quantities of hydrogen – both green (produced by electrolysis by renewables) and blue (made from fossil fuels but the flue gases are cleaned by CCS). That hydrogen may be used for everything from home heating to industrial processes to powering vehicles like trains and ships – the need is vast. And we need to do lots of the conventional – more electric rail and cars, lots more home insulation, more renewables and more nuclear power.

It is possible – but we need a route map. We need to know where we now are in terms of which systems are more carbon prolific and in needing improvement. And as a nation we need to then implement every carbon abatement measure as quickly as we can afford to do, and in a way that brings society along the journey too. We will all need to eat more sustainably, travel more carefully and use clothes rather than gas to make us comfortable in our lives.

Engineering firms need to guide clients better than before towards lower carbon solutions. Clients also need to demand that the advice they get is more focused on reducing emissions, than on traditional metrics for success because that is the measure against which their actions will be judged subsequently.

We can leave a world fit for our grandchildren – but the time to start doing that is now.

Related links

  • Find out more about The Carbon Project - a collaborative effort, led by ICE, to deliver rapid progress towards net-zero carbon across all infrastructure systems, programmes and projects
  • Tim Chapman, Partner and Director at Boston Consulting Group