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Industry experts highlight the critical role of civil engineers in decarbonising UK roads

26 June 2023

The ICE Summer Prestige lecture explored the lessons from the Welsh approach to future road planning.

Industry experts highlight the critical role of civil engineers in decarbonising UK roads
Roads are a valuable infrastructure asset but will need to be used differently in the future if the UK is to meet its net zero target. Image credit: iStock/kbwills

Civil engineers will play a crucial role in decarbonising the roads sector and helping to meet net zero targets, experts from National Highways and the Welsh government have said.

Earlier this year, the Welsh government announced that it would only build new road schemes that help to support a modal shift in how people travel.

Nick Harris, chief executive of National Highways, and Andy Falleyn, deputy director and chief highways engineer for the Welsh government, explained this shift at the ICE’s Summer Prestige lecture.

The topic of the lecture was: "How can the roads sector decarbonise to meet net zero targets and address climate change – and what role should civil engineers be playing in this?"

The lecture was held on 19 June at the ICE’s One Great George Street HQ in London.

visual mins summer prestige lecture
Visual minutes from the lecture.

A modal shift

As the speakers pointed out, roads aren’t inherently bad and are a valuable infrastructure asset.

They are not a service in their own right but are an important enabler of the movements needed to facilitate our lives.

Society needs connectivity, and access to people, services and opportunities – for work, business and leisure.

As Falleyn put it, “roads are part of the solution and not the problem” – they are a piece of infrastructure that needs to be used differently to achieve the required goals.

Engineers therefore need to facilitate a modal shift in how people use our roads.

The Welsh approach

It’s crucial to understand the outcomes that society needs in terms of access, not merely movement.

Only then can engineers consider the role that the road network should play in achieving those outcomes, delegates heard.

The Welsh government is ahead of the game in terms of its policies and appraisal processes.

The basis of its long-term thinking is captured in the Well-being of Future Generations Act 2015 and the 2021 ‘new path’ Llwybr Newydd integrated transport strategy.

This follows the ‘avoid, shift, improve’ approach in reducing the need to travel, and shifting away from private cars.

Addressing the Welsh government’s response to the findings of the independent Welsh roads review, Falleyn explained: “It’s not an end to road building per se, but it has raised the bar much higher in terms of whether roads are needed going forward.”

Future road investment will need to meet certain criteria for schemes to progress.

“We’re seeing Wales take a much more integrated approach to transport planning, and we’ll be doing the same in England,” Harris said.

National Highways is the first roads organisation in the world to achieve PAS 2080 accreditation and is already operating by these principles in building new roads only when there’s no viable alternative.

Driving innovation

Harris explained that National Highways’ decarbonisation plan splits the emissions challenge into three parts:

  • corporate
  • road construction and maintenance
  • road travel

Decarbonisation of construction and maintenance is a big commitment.

Taking a more innovative approach to the use of materials is part of National Highways’ roadmap for the decarbonisation of concrete, steel and asphalt.

The decarbonisation of travel won’t be achieved by electrification of vehicles alone – a reduction in demand is essential.

The Welsh government aims to cut the number of car miles per person by 10% by 2030.

Time to be bold

In England and Wales, a mature road network already largely exists.

Delegates heard that, in future, civil engineering will be less about new-build and more about caring for assets with safety and sustainability at the fore.

The climate crisis is among the biggest problems recent generations have had to tackle and the civil engineering profession, with its problem-solving abilities, is well placed to lead on this task.

As Harris said: “Your skill as engineers is going to be crucial to ensuring that these projects deliver a low-carbon future.”

Increased diversity – of thought as well as of people – will help in solving these challenges.

Collaboration to achieve shared outcomes is vital and there are many opportunities for innovative thinking.

Civil engineers therefore need to be bold and follow Wales’s radical approach.

  • Sarah Hall, sustainability insights manager at Institution of Civil Engineers