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How has UK infrastructure performed on carbon emissions since the Infrastructure Carbon Review?

05 October 2020

New ICE research on the UK’s carbon emissions from infrastructure will be launched at this week's Unwin Lecture. Dr Jannik Giesekam, lead researcher and Carbon Project member, provides a sneak preview.

How has UK infrastructure performed on carbon emissions since the Infrastructure Carbon Review?
The use of infrastructure assets accounted for around half of the UK’s carbon emissions in 2013 (image credit: Shutterstock)

November 2013 saw the publication of the landmark Infrastructure Carbon Review, which estimated that the construction, operation and use of infrastructure assets accounted for around half of the UK’s carbon emissions.

Jointly developed by government and industry, the report boldly set out “to make carbon reduction part of the DNA of infrastructure in the UK." Replete with an HM Treasury stamp, the Review established the narrative that ‘reducing carbon, reduces cost’, and set out a series of actions for government, clients and suppliers.

The accompanying press release touted that the “joint initiative to reduce carbon in infrastructure…could save as much as 24 million tonnes of carbon and £1.46 billion a year by 2050”. One year on from the Review, 28 companies were signed up, and demonstrating the benefits of targeting carbon. By two years it was 56 organisations and this figure would subsequently rise to over 70.

Influential recommendations

The Review also set out a series of influential recommendations, one of which was the creation of a new publicly accessible specification for carbon reduction: PAS 2080. Now used on a variety of projects, PAS 2080 and its accompanying guidance document provided a common language and framework for all industry actors to manage whole life carbon. In addition to driving changes in practice, the Review’s underlying dataset quantified emissions under the control and influence of different actors and economic infrastructure sectors.

Specifically, it set out a 2010 baseline for Capital Carbon, Operational Carbon and User Carbon emissions from Energy, Transport, Water, Waste and Communications assets. The results from this baseline assessment have echoed down through subsequent reports, standards, and the slides of countless events, such as Mott MacDonald’s annual Carbon Crunch, the Construction Climate Challenge and the ICE’s Global Engineering Congress.

Whether you recognised their origin or not, you’ve probably recently seen a graph or some big headline numbers based on the Infrastructure Carbon Review.

The net-zero challenge

Since that day in 2013 we’ve seen ratification of the Paris Agreement and the UK adopt a target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The UK Parliament and devolved administrations have declared climate emergencies, along with the majority of UK local authorities - many of whom have set more ambitious carbon reduction targets, aiming for carbon neutrality by as early as 2030. Simultaneously we’ve seen declarations and commitments from thousands of architects, civil engineers, contractors, project managers, structural engineers, building service engineers and landscape architects.

In the last year, many UK infrastructure and built environment industry forums have opened up new conversations to try and collectively address the net-zero challenge. We’ve also witnessed some radical changes in our infrastructure systems. For instance, there’s been a transformation in our electricity supply - where the TWh supplied from fossil fuels have more than halved since 2010, whilst renewables have quadrupled.

Now, as we approach the 7th anniversary of the Infrastructure Carbon Review, members of the ICE Carbon Project have been updating the Review’s main dataset in order to find out how infrastructure carbon emissions have changed. The results will help frame the scale of the challenge associated with the net-zero transition, and highlight the urgent actions required from the infrastructure value chain.

The good news is that collectively there’s been a 23% reduction in infrastructure carbon from 2010-2018. However, that headline figure masks a mixed picture of progress, with some sectors and sources making rapid reductions, whilst others increased their emissions.

2020 Unwin Lecture: Zero Carbon and Infrastructure

Watch the Unwin Lecture for the launch of the results, and reflections from members of the ICE’s Carbon Project including myself, Tim Chapman (Arup) and Maria Manidaki (Mott MacDonald). Collectively, we set out how emissions from infrastructure has changed during this timeframe and, crucially, the step changes we must deliver over the coming decade.

Watch the Unwin Lecture

  • Dr. Jannik Giesekam , Chancellor's Fellow in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, University of Strathclyde