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How can we help achieve net zero?

05 March 2020

This year’s State of the Nation report will focus on one of the most important sustainability issues of the day – achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Steering Group Chair, Keith Howells, sets out what the report hopes to achieve.

How can we help achieve net zero?
What policy changes are required to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050? Image credit: Shutterstock

What policy changes are required for the UK’s infrastructure sector to play its role in achieving net-zero emissions by 2050? What steps must the industry take to support this? Who and how should we pay for the changes needed to deliver net-zero? How do we embed net-zero in decision-making to create the change that is needed?

These are all questions that led us to focusing this year’s ICE State of the Nation report on the issue of net-zero. As chair of the Steering Group, I am leading a group of experts from across the built environment sector to research and produce a report that offers clear, actionable policy recommendations.

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 throughout the UK.

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

The report process is robust, and currently we are at the evidence gathering stage – speaking with a range of experts across different sectors to inform our thoughts.

You can follow updates on the process on our News section.

Setting the agenda

Much work has already been done and many organisations are already active in this space. Most notably by the Climate Change on Committee which has set out net-zero pathways for all parts of the economy (ICE has already published an insights paper that draws some of this out). We will be using our unique position and knowledge as civil engineers to identify specifically how the infrastructure pathway can be realised.

Infrastructure, through its construction and use, is a significant source of the UK’s emissions. While good progress has been made in de-carbonising our electricity supply (although it is difficult to completely “de-carbonise” due to the embedded carbon in constructing the asset), much more needs to be done given the rising demand of our growing population and our insatiable thirst for data. Electrification of transport is already underway and some forms of transport (heavy goods vehicles) will be more suited to other solutions such as hydrogen or biofuels.

The task of reducing emissions from domestic heating has barely begun though. Many of the infrastructure assets that we’ll be using in 2050 are already built, so we not only need to consider how we can reduce carbon in the construction and use of new assets, but also in terms of the retrofit, reuse and operation of existing assets.

What will we produce?

We’ll be looking at all these issues from a policy perspective, endeavouring to figure out what regulations, financial incentives and public education measures will be needed. Our final report will make a series of recommendations, to government and relevant sector bodies, along these lines.

As civil engineers, our challenge is to think about why we’re doing things, as well as what we’re doing, and how we go about it. In answering the why question, our innate enthusiasm for shiny new projects will, at times, come into conflict with whether we should be delivering them at all.

While our primary audience will be national, regional and local political decision-makers, we also want to inform debate amongst our members and provide perspectives that they can bring to their discussions with decision-makers in the public and private sectors.

Given the importance of this topic, ICE will be developing more detailed guidance for the engineering community over the coming months and years. While the report will be UK focused, we hope other countries may find the recommendations helpful.

This is an exciting topic that will help inform the future we all live in. We’ll be providing a series of updates before the launch in July, so do check back on the Infrastructure Blog and in Latest News to find out what’s happening.

  • Keith Howells, president 2022/23 at Institution of Civil Engineers