SBS21: Aligning Infrastructure to Net Zero


This blog post has been produced for the Greater Birmingham and Coventry and Warwickshire Chambers of Commerce as part of the 2021 Sustainable Business Series: Net Zero campaign.

The Sustainable Business Series: Net Zero is the Chamber’s first campaign on environmental sustainability, which aims to share best practice, guidance and knowledge to increase business progress to net zero. In 2021, this involves 5 free online webinars taking place from the end of September and throughout October along with publishing thought leadership podcasts, videos and blog content. The campaign will feature a Sustainability Summit on 3rd November

Thanks to our Headline Sponsors – Aston University, Arup, Morgan Sindall and the University of Birmingham - all webinars and the Summit are free to attend. Interested parties can find out more and register to attend Sustainable Business Series: Net Zero events here, and the Sustainable Business Summit here. 

The 6th Carbon Budget, enshrined in UK law earlier this year, was the first carbon budget aligned to our national net zero target.

A key part of reaching net zero is the decarbonisation of transport, currently responsible for over quarter of the country’s carbon emissions. Key themes for the decarbonisation of transport are encouraging a modal shift from private vehicles to public transport, and developing active travel networks to support safe cycling and walking. Doing these things will reduce the operational carbon emissions associated with travel by reducing in tailpipe emissions. However, it is crucial that we do not only consider emissions from road users but also the embodied carbon associated with the construction and development of the new infrastructure to support these activities.

The Infrastructure Carbon Review (ICR) (2013) and PAS 2080:2016 – Carbon Management in Infrastructure – set out a process to reduce carbon in a manner that also reduces cost. This means carbon reduction should be considered through design, procurement and delivery. The practical application of this means we can increase efficiency and limit our environmental impact. Prior to our national 2050 net zero target, it would have been great to demonstrate a project which reduced cost and carbon emissions by 20 or 30%. However, thinking about percentage reductions is no longer enough and we must look at how we can minimise carbon as close to zero as possible. An important question then becomes can we achieve near zero emissions following the ‘reduce carbon, reduce cost’ mantra from the ICR?

The ‘carbon cost tipping point’ is the point at which there are opportunities to reduce carbon further but with an expected increase in cost. As an example, this tipping point may be reached by the use of low-carbon materials which are more expensive than their traditional counterparts but would reduce carbon emissions further. If we are serious about net zero then we must consider these alternatives on our schemes and projects.

Carbon cost management[1] is the process where carbon reduction opportunities are costed to ensure the most efficient options are pursued. Understanding where the tipping point occurs on a project, and the cost difference between low-carbon solutions versus traditional methods is vitally important. This will become more important still when potential carbon taxes are introduced or the need to pay for offsetting emissions associated with the development of schemes.

The key challenges for business are:

  • To understand where the tipping point occurs in your activities. What are the extra costs associated with low-carbon alternatives and the business case for going beyond the tipping point.
  • Understanding and accounting for whole life carbon emissions from schemes or projects and taking all steps possible to reduce carbon emission as close to zero as possible.

With time, the carbon cost tipping point will disappear as low-carbon solutions become cheaper than traditional alternatives. However, until then, we must incorporate carbon cost management into decision making to effectively develop net zero projects.

Dr David Jackson – Carbon Team Lead, Sweco UK

David has a background in Weather Forecasting and climate science with the Met Office and saw first hand the impact climate change was having on our lives. Following a MSc in Carbon Management, David completed a PhD researching carbon management in infrastructure. This has led to opportunities to work with Costain and more recently Sweco, working with clients to set and achieve challenging carbon reduction targets.

More information on Carbon Cost Management: