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Infrastructure blog

The difficult choices for infrastructure and net-zero that lie ahead are beginning to sink in

07 December 2020

ICE Trustee for Carbon and Climate, Professor Jim Hall, talks about his experience of giving evidence to Parliament last week on the Government’s Covid recovery and the challenges of the net-zero target.

The difficult choices for infrastructure and net-zero that lie ahead are beginning to sink in
There are difficult choices ahead for infrastructure and the net-zero target

Last week I represented the Institution of Civil Engineers at the Environmental Audit Committee’s hearing on greening the post-Covid recovery.

The hearing came just a few days after a series of major announcements from the government. Significant infrastructure investments were announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review. The long-awaited National Infrastructure Strategy has set out the government’s policies for infrastructure; and the Prime Minister’s Ten-Point Plan has set out a bold set of goals for achieving net-zero. Meanwhile, the dark pall of the Covid-19 pandemic hangs over the economy and over the public transport systems into which so much infrastructure investment has been poured.

So what's the plan?

The government’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050 now frames all discussions about the environment in government, though questions of conserving biodiversity, which are sometimes overlooked in the dash to net zero, were also on the agenda. In my opening remarks, I emphasised that though the National Industry Strategy is welcome (if long overdue) and contains many policies for which the ICE has been arguing for years, it still does not contain a quantitative plan for how UK infrastructure will reach net-zero. There are many good initiatives but also many questions, for example about what the end game of decarbonising the power sector will be and what the plan is for decarbonising transport, not to mention the carbon embodied in concrete and steel structures.

More detail needed on energy storage

The prospect of phasing out all coal-fired power plants by 2025 is an achievement to be celebrated, as is the breath-taking scaling-up of offshore wind supplies. In calculations researchers in my group in Oxford were doing just five years ago, offshore wind was seen as being too expensive.

Now the Prime Minister has committed to 40GW of offshore wind by 2030. However, the Ten Point Plan did not say anything about energy storage, which is needed to cope with the intermittency of renewable supplies. It did include new commitments to nuclear energy which is welcomed by ICE as it’s clear that a balance between nuclear and renewables will be required on the journey to reach and sustain net-zero emissions.However, it failed to give reference to the National Infrastructure Commission’s caution around new nuclear investments, given the eye-watering strike price that was finally agreed for Hinkley C which show that the nuclear industry has failed to achieve anything approaching the cost reductions achieved by offshore wind and photovoltaic cells. For nuclear to be successful, financing costs must be sustainable.

The future of transport

Members of the EAC were understandably interested in the future of transport, given the remarkable shifts in transport behaviour that have been brought about by the pandemic, and the Prime Minister’s recent commitment to phase out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. The witness from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) was fired up by the challenge, but emphasised her industry’s need for a skilled workforce. She highlighted how other European countries are ramping up sweeteners to lure the new industry of EV manufacturing to scale up in their countries.

Dr Steve Melia from the University of the West of England rightly argued that EVs are not a panacea for decarbonising the transport sector, though I think he overplayed his estimate of the need for drastic reductions in road transport in order to achieve net zero. We agreed that decarbonising freight transport remains a big challenge.

The Committee was interested in the fiscal implications of the shift from highly taxed petrol and diesel to relatively low-taxed electricity. Other ways of getting road users to pay for roads are bound to be needed, and I remarked that the ICE had been arguing in favour of road user charging at least since the 2016 National Needs Assessment. Road-user charging provides the opportunity to incentivise much more efficient use of the road network. But the lessons of the Manchester congestion charging referendum and the gillet jaune protests need to be learnt. Politicians need to do a better job of explaining why road user charging is needed and how it can be applied fairly.

Building energy efficiency

Finally, in the session that I attended, the Committee asked questions about buildings, especially to the representative from RIBA. My impression was that the MPs recognise that there have been damaging stop-starts in government schemes for building energy efficiency. It has taken far too long to get ambitious standards for energy efficient new buildings.

The MPs were clearly all motivated by the need to ensure that the recovery from covid-19 is good for the environment. The extent to which the net zero goal has become accepted is remarkably encouraging. The difficult choices that lie ahead are beginning to sink in.

  • Prof Jim Hall, professor of climate and environmental risks at University of Oxford