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Infrastructure blog

Seizing the opportunity to go further and faster on decarbonisation

08 October 2020

Transport for the North’s Interim Director Jonathan Spruce outlines how the North can lead the way on decarbonisation.

Seizing the opportunity to go further and faster on decarbonisation
The Humber Bridge. Image credit: Shutterstock

While we all continue to grapple with how to respond to the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, accelerating the decarbonisation of infrastructure must remain paramount.

That was one of the key messages to emerge from the latest in Atkins’ Covid-19 ‘Road to Recovery’ series debating the importance of rebuilding and rebalancing the Northern Powerhouse. It chimes with calls made in ICE’s own recently published submission to the Comprehensive Spending Review, which calls for a Net-Zero Infrastructure Plan that takes decisions on the policy trade-offs needed to achieve infrastructure, including pathways to decarbonising transport and heat.

Politicians, think tanks, industry experts and civil society representatives came together to highlight the innovation and leadership required to reboot the Northern economy. The event was held on the same day that Government announced the trial of the UK’s first-ever hydrogen-powered train and the ambition for Tees Valley to become a trailblazing Hydrogen Transport Hub.

Taking the lead on decarbonisation

All agreed that strong leadership and devolution were seen as essential for the North to lead the way on decarbonisation, accepting that we will not be going back to the old ways in which we worked and maybe travelled. Decarbonising transport will require ‘locking in’ some of the benefits seen from the move towards active travel during the pandemic and taking advantage of the quicker economic ‘bounceback’ from smaller towns that has been seen as a result of more people shopping locally as they are working from home.

Understanding how to shape places to better serve new demands is something that is much more effectively done through local leadership, and so any delays to the planned Devolution White Paper should be no more than temporary. An emphasis on place also suggests that we should look towards a systems approach to local infrastructure planning, as ICE set out in its State of the Nation 2019 report and advocates for through its ‘levelling up’ work.

Making better use of our infrastructure

Decarbonisation can also be accelerated by making much better use of any infrastructure that we use, again recognising how much more flexible our future demands on the transport and energy sectors will be. How we provide the energy requirements for working from home, in houses that are energy efficient, yet allowing leisure and essential trips to be made by sustainable modes, is the challenge for the industry - but again emphasises the need for a systems approach.

At the event this week, participants argued that setting out local infrastructure plans will provide greater clarity and certainty but that decarbonisation will involve investment from both the public and private sectors. However, a clear long term pipeline of infrastructure, supported by devolved funding and accountability, will provide firms, both small and large, with greater confidence to invest in people and skills to support the opportunities that we have to go further and faster on decarbonisation. This will help to ensure that the UK engineering sector can lead the way in this field.

In case you missed it...

  • Jonathan Spruce, Trustee, Policy & External Affairs at Institution of Civil Engineers