Opinion

How UK infrastructure can reach net-zero carbon

12 April 2021

If the industry simply digitises what it’s currently doing, then it has missed an important opportunity. Mark Coates, Bentley Systems

Mark Coates says an open approach to data is key to delivering net-zero infrastructure.

There are two important topics that major infrastructure projects need to tackle today: delivering sustainability goals and improving project performance.

Neither are easy. Major projects are inherently carbon intensive, and the data required for effective analytics is not easily obtained, as major projects span multiple organisations and each organisation has their own individual objectives and separate data strategies.

Overcoming these barriers will take a transition from a passive adoption of data analytics from general business applications to an active pursuit of data analytics built specifically for major infrastructure projects.

Due to their nature, the largest infrastructure projects taking place in the UK are the most digitally enabled, but they are also one of the largest consumers of construction material and, therefore, among the largest producers of carbon.

For example, cement is the second most-used substance on the planet after water and is responsible for 8% of global carbon emissions. If it was a country, cement would be the third largest emitter of carbon after the US and China, releasing 2.8 billion tonnes of carbon every year (source: https://horizon-magazine.eu/article/carrot-cement-how-root-vegetables-and-ash-could-make-concrete-more-sustainable.html).

The next generation of British infrastructure will be greener, because it has to be. In the future, the requirements of the net-zero commitment will be embedded in every stage of the project lifecycle and underpin decisions on the technical solutions needed to deliver projects.

One of the biggest issues right now is the emphasis on short-term delivery milestones and not long-term outcomes. While these milestones are still very important, business, public sector organisations, and the wider population are becoming increasingly focused on the need to overcome larger, long-term strategic challenges.

The current situation doesn’t mean that anyone should dismiss short-term wins or individual interests, but rather reallocate resources to meet both business and societal goals. In fact, by understanding the direction of travel and tackling these long-term challenges, businesses can also win more in the short-term too.

Action on infrastructure will be crucial for meeting the UK’s carbon budgets and continuing progress towards the net-zero target. Data and technology is the key to realising this new, green industry.

To meet client-imposed carbon savings of 50%, the team at HS2 worked in a connected data environment to accurately calculate and analyse the project’s carbon scheme. When the design and materials quantities were modified, the tool enabled the carbon footprint to change as well.

As a result, HS2 became the first organisation in the UK transport sector to achieve PAS 2080 global accreditation in November 2020, recognising its extensive plans to reduce carbon through the design, construction, and operation of Britain’s new railway.

It is heartening to see that the infrastructure industry is progressing down the digital roadmap. But to be successful, carbon reduction must become a purpose-led mission that is embedded across the business, not just at board-level. If the industry simply digitises what it’s currently doing, then it has missed an important opportunity.

It is only through an open-data environment that businesses are truly able to model, plan to reduce, and crucially monitor carbon emissions, which cut the amount of greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere.

Mark Coates is director of strategic industry engagements at Bentley Systems.