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Infrastructure blog

Taking a holistic approach to net-zero innovation

22 September 2020

Emma Antrobus, ICE North West Director, discusses a recent Atkins debate about what net-zero innovation can do to help power the North.

Taking a holistic approach to net-zero innovation
More needs to be done to reduce emissions using carbon capture and storage. Image credit: Shutterstock

To both address ongoing inequalities in the North and progress effectively towards the UK’s net-zero targets, a holistic plan that examines infrastructure needs is required.

That was the consensus from politicians, economists, think tanks, senior industry experts and civil society representatives at an Atkins event held earlier this month. The event formed part of Atkins’ Covid-19 ‘Road to Recovery’ series and seeks to step up the debate on what’s needed to rebuild and rebalance the Northern Powerhouse.

As ICE continues to examine what 'levelling up' should mean for infrastructure, alongside our State of the Nation 2020 call for Government to deliver an integrated plan for transitioning the UK’s economic infrastructure networks to net-zero, we were ideally placed to participate and lend our voice to this important debate around net-zero innovation, particularly in the North, and the solutions required.

Local decarbonisation

Many of the Northern cities like Manchester, have already adopted even more challenging net-zero targets than the national ones. The devolved powers on transport gives a great opportunity to decarbonise transport on a more localised basis focusing on developing the active travel networks. This can pave the way for national policy to legislate on the strategic networks.

All of us who participated in the conversation agreed that planning is the key to delivering innovation and change, but that market forces alone cannot make that happen and a new, anticipatory regulatory landscape is needed. This would also require a new approach to funding for innovation that is based on whole systems thinking.

Prioritising greater energy efficiency

Lord Deben, Chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, argued that energy efficiency deserves greater prioritisation, citing that the North has both the highest proportion of hard to heat homes and greater numbers of lower earners but yet, as well as the challenging legacy of heavy industries. ICE’s own insights into Northern Powerhouse Rail identify that over the coming decade, the North is forecasted to experience slower population growth and lower levels of economic growth compared to the rest of England. There is an opportunity to further develop the skills already present in renewable energy sectors to tackle these problems, particularly the off-shore wind power capabilities on both the east and west coasts of the North.

More also needs to be done in order to decarbonise energy and heat networks and reduce emissions using carbon capture and storage whilst developing further negative emissions technologies. As ICE’s Covid-19 White Paper underscored, Covid-19 does not change the long-term drivers for infrastructure development - the population will continue to grow, the need to rapidly decarbonise transport system will remain, as will the need to address regional inequalities across Britain.

We need tried and tested solutions

I argued that the longer we continue without a clear plan, the more industry is inhibited from making significant change. Engineering tends to be very risk averse and so relies on tried and tested solutions, particularly in working with the public sector who require a high level of assurance. This point was echoed by other participants, who called for procurement to become part of the regulation overhaul, so that it is value-based not cost-driven.

Finally, in light of the Government mantra of “build, build, build", it is important that there is a clear, visible pipeline of work for the industry to ensure that companies and projects can be efficient, and plan effectively for the skills that they will require. For the North, we know that lower historic skills attainment has led to lower productivity levels so we need to ensure that we can attract the most capable young people into the industry to allow for that levelling up of the economy.

In case you missed it...

  • Emma Antrobus, regional director at Institution of Civil Engineers, North West