Decarbonising the Strategic Road Network and local roads to create a new ‘normal’

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The Strategic Road Network (SRN) comprises the UK’s motorways and major A roads and is an integral piece of UK infrastructure.  With traffic forecast to grow by as much as 59% on the SRN by 2050, it seems inevitable that further expansion of the SRN and local road network will be required to accommodate this. To this end, earlier in the year, the Chancellor set out an extensive 5-year plan to spend £640bn on infrastructure as part of the Budget, with £27bn pledged specifically to improve and extend the SRN. Road Investment Strategy 2 sets out a detailed vision for achieving this expansion to the SRN and accommodates for the forecast traffic growth previously indicated.

Infrastructure currently accounts for 53% of carbon emissions (which is estimated to grow to 90% by 2050 due to decarbonisation in other sectors). Given the ambitious plans for expansion of the SRN, this must be recognised by all those involved in realising the Government’s Road Investment Strategy. This must also be balanced against the Government’s commitment to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (as required by the recently updated Climate Change Act 2008) (CCA). The CCA has also been updated to commit the UK to five-year carbon budgets so as to map out the progress made in the Government’s efforts.

In response to this, the Government has published its Decarbonising Transport paper, setting the agenda for tackling the transport industry’s carbon footprint. The final plan is set to be published by the end of the year and there appears to be a clear consensus from the Government that rapid action is needed in the infrastructure sector to stem what can only be regarded as a climate emergency.

Given the conflict between the Government’s initiatives to expand the road network and commitment to achieve net-zero, a radical shift of approach will be required in relation to the procurement of the SRN expansion as inaction will only lead to an increase in carbon emissions. It is therefore crucial that urgent steps are taken towards achieving the net-zero target.

Reaction from the construction industry

In June of this year, eight major contractors declared a state of climate and biodiversity emergency and committed to 11 principles, governing their ambition to meet net-zero. It will be interesting to see the influence that this environmental dedication will have on the industry as a whole and whether we will see more signatories to this declaration as the importance of reducing the industry’s carbon footprint rises to prominence.

The PAS 2080 verification system, introduced by the British Standards Institution, provides a useful tool for contractors and designers in relation to carbon management. Companies that meet the PAS 2080 standard are able to quantify and manage carbon usage effectively and are also regarded as benefitting from an increased competitive advantage in a global market where carbon reduction is a key commitment. This standard creates a backbone for contractors and designers to consider innovative methods of tackling their carbon footprint and the coronavirus pandemic, which has acted as a reset button for humanity, presents a timely opportunity for the industry to give effect to this.

It is also important to consider the use of low-carbon materials at the outset of any additional schemes set to expand the SRN. Whilst ever steel, concrete and cement are the primary materials used in these schemes, net-zero will be impossible and will only increase the burden of switching to eco-friendly alternatives in the future.

In taking steps towards reducing their carbon footprint, HS2 contractors have started using low-carbon concrete, which provides a 42% reduction in carbon dioxide compared with standard concrete. Endorsing this technology may provide a platform for the development of new, more efficient carbon-neutral construction materials and methodologies.

How can contracting authorities drive the agenda?

Whilst it is clear that a concerted industry effort coupled with a societal shift is essential to give effect to the sea change which is required to combat climate change, it’s important to consider how contracting authorities can drive forward the Government’s commitment to achieve net-zero by 2050.

We have set out a number of areas which contracting authorities may wish to consider when shaping future schemes:

1. Place decarbonisation at the heart of asset design, delivery and operation. Schemes have typically been developed so that they are viable from a cost perspective, however there is a growing need to ensure that their contribution to carbon emissions is also considered. The use of low-carbon materials, automation and off-site construction provide a useful starting point. In addition, considering the longevity of materials that are being used and how they are to be maintained and disposed of may help to minimise the carbon impact of schemes. As mentioned above, due to the continued use of concrete, cement and steel on the SRN it is unlikely that schemes will be carbon-free and as such a wider programme of carbon-offsetting may need to be developed also.

There are various ways in which these carbon reduction measures can be embedded into the procurement of new schemes. These will need to be considered by contracting authorities on a scheme-by-scheme basis:

    • Mandate compliance with PAS 2080 for publicly procured infrastructure projects. This specification requires carbon emissions to be reduced by around 75% over the life cycle of infrastructure projects.
    • Place a greater weighting on environmental considerations when assessing the most economically advantageous tender.
    • Dialogue with bidders the most effective ways of managing carbon throughout the life-cycle of the scheme and ensure that these are captured in any constraints which the selected contractor has to comply with to provide the works.
    • Require the selected contractor to develop and implement a carbon management plan from an early design stage which includes a forecast of the energy and associated carbon emissions which the scheme is likely to generate, a scheme specific target which meets or exceeds regulatory requirements, how the contractor plans to achieve this and any specific actions which need to be taken in the design, construction and commissioning of the scheme to reduce carbon emissions. The contractor can report to the client in relation to the progress it has made as against its carbon management plan regularly throughout the duration of the contract and on completion of the scheme be required to advise on the predicted performance of the asset during its lifespan.
    • Build in a carbon value engineering mechanism into the contract conditions. This envisages the selected contractor adapting the industry standard practice of value-engineering for integrated carbon and cost reduction.

2. Embed sustainable thinking throughout the supply chain. This may be achieved by ensuring that all sub-contracts are ‘back-to-back’ with the carbon requirements stated in the main works contract or may go further if a scheme specific carbon target is adopted such that all parties engaged by the contracting authority (designers, contractors, sub-contractors and suppliers) are required to collaborate to achieve this.

Furthermore, the Government may consider a more interventionist approach to actively manage the demand for the SRN. The Road Investment Strategy 2 (2020-2025) has committed to go further and faster in the race to make substantial reductions in road transport emissions. The coronavirus pandemic has seen the Government directly intervene with peoples’ livelihoods and this may drive an impetus for greater Government intervention going forwards in areas such as travel to achieve net-zero by 2050. Interventions requiring road users to switch to electric vehicles at a faster rate, for instance by ending the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 and requiring all new cars and vans to have zero emissions from 2035, and reduce vehicle mileage may be adopted. In order for road users to reduce their vehicle mileage a holistic approach will need to be adopted by the Government and include a combination of better and more affordable public transport, road user charging, schemes to encourage active travel and the roll-out of super-fast broadband to encourage remote working where possible. The Government has recently committed £12 billion to low-carbon transport including active transport and electric vehicle infrastructure, which demonstrates a clear commitment to making reductions in transport emissions . It will be interesting to see how the Government balances the objectives of RIS2 and the need to achieve net-zero by 2050 in its Transport Decarbonisation Plan which will be issued later this year.

Finally, given the public opposition for major infrastructure projects such as HS2 from both a cost and environmental perspective, it is important that the Government considers the extent to which taxpayers will buy-in to its new road expansion plans. Figures also show that Britain’s debt now stands at £2.1 trillion – the highest in 60 years. With this in mind, not only may it be difficult to attract public endorsement, but raising the funds required will likely prove to be a challenging task.

There is a long road ahead to achieving net-zero by 2050, particularly for the infrastructure sector, but it seems clear that cutting carbon emissions over the next decade or so needs to be put firmly at the top of the Government and industry’s agenda.


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