Low carbon UK: why we have to get infrastructure right

blackfriars via flickr - Jim LinwoodThis post is by Tim Chapman, director of the infrastructure design group at Arup.

Abating carbon emissions is becoming an increasingly important responsibility, and one in which developed countries such as the UK need to show technological leadership.

Until recently, the infrastructure sector wasn’t aware of its primary role in making this change. At Arup we have been learning how to embed important changes that will allow the whole economy to perform in a much more carbon efficient way.  We started with the building sector, for which we were best known but, since, we have been in the forefront of making these changes globally across all the infrastructure sectors in which we now operate: energy, transport, water, data communications and others, and for specific assets, like tunnels and bridges, of which infrastructure systems are comprised.

Infrastructure is the basis of our economy.  In the UK some 53 per cent of carbon is emitted directly or indirectly via infrastructure systems.  The power sector is fundamental.  The energy mix for the nation dictates overall carbon emissions.  Thus, mainly nuclear France emits far less carbon than fossil fuel addicted UK, where burning coal and gas is still common, nuclear is declining and renewables are yet to make a significant impact.

Low carbon infrastructure still isn’t commonplace
David MacKay’s excellent book sets out the main steps for decarbonising the UK and the power sector is vital. He remarked “I’m not pro-nuclear- just pro-arithmetic”.  Renewables can and will play a leading role in future power, but without large scale energy storage, reliable baseload power is needed.

The transport sector for both people and goods is the next most important area for attention; while electric road vehicles are increasingly visible on our roads and streets, they remain an oddity and the HGVs charging up our major motorways are immune to simple electrification.  Electric trains are faster, more reliable, cheaper to operate and much more pleasant to travel on, but are not yet commonplace everywhere.

As infrastructure systems last for ages, they are slow to change.  Some current road corridors have been in place for thousands of years.  Much of the infrastructure that supplies our homes and workplaces in the UK is hundreds of years old.  We cannot replace it overnight, or even over decades.  So we have to be smart in our interventions to make the biggest impacts quickly.  This whole systems approach is becoming increasingly recognised as the key to making the best changes, those that lead to a marked reduction in carbon, but also result in improved reliability, interdependency and overall resilience.

The infrastructure sector is waking up to the challenge
The UK infrastructure sector has just woken up to the need for these changes.  We have gained substantial experience already working with more enlightened clients.  Designers, constructors and manufacturers are rising to the challenge, sharing knowledge and devising new and better solutions, which enable infrastructure systems to be delivered more efficiently.

The mantra “reducing carbon reduces cost” has become more commonplace amongst providers of UK infrastructure since a campaign, led by the UK Green Construction Board, showed that seeking to reduce carbon leads to cheaper whole life infrastructure solutions than just trying to reduce cost alone.  As an example, in the burying of circular utility pipes, it took a low carbon challenge to lead to the, obvious in hindsight, invention of the curved excavator bucket to improve efficiency; this minimised the volume of soil to be excavated then replaced, and also resulted in a more reliable product, as loose backfilling of bedding sand often caused misalignment of pipes and subsequent leaks.

Traditional low carbon thinking in buildings has previously only sought to control operational carbon emissions, where energy use had been most profligate.  Action on this was spurred as far back as the oil crises of the 1970s when a need to insulate buildings and improve heating efficiency was first felt.  But the Green Construction Board’s 2013 Infrastructure carbon review introduced the concept that three components of carbon needed to be reduced together: ‘capital carbon’ required to create the physical assets (also known sometimes as embodied carbon), the ‘operational carbon’ needed to run them and the ‘use carbon’ expended by users.

A new UK low carbon standard for infrastructure
This report pointed out that efforts to reduce carbon were often stymied, as many in the infrastructure supply chain felt it was somebody else’s responsibility to make the necessary changes.  There was a willingness to partake, but a reluctance to lead.  It highlighted three vital ingredients if change was to happen: leadership, innovation and procurement.

This led to a new standard, just published as PAS 2080:2016 Carbon management in infrastructure,  the world’s first specification for managing whole life carbon in economic infrastructure (defined as water, energy, transport, communications and waste).  It sets out clear ways that clients, designers, constructors and manufacturers can all play their part in creating low carbon infrastructure.  We in Arup are very proud to have been the co-authors of this new standard, along with our colleagues from Mott MacDonald, showing that collaboration between old rivals is critical for embedding these changes. And the prize is significant; a British standard on low carbon infrastructure could eventually form the basis of an international standard (ISO), and represents a significant contribution to the development of this global market.

Arup has a strong ethos of putting sustainability at the heart of its projects.  Sustainability has many forms, and sometimes they involve complex trade-offs, which haven’t always been optimised.  There is a growing awareness of the severe impacts of climate change and the moral imperative of mitigation – which would benefit both developing and developed parts of the world – rather than just adapting to it.

Ignoring climate change mitigation is a high risk strategy
Adaptation without mitigation to the most extreme effects of climate change would be a high risk strategy and is likely only to be affordable for the most developed regions. The problems of infrastructure provision are common across the developed and developing worlds – we all require power, water and mobility – and, increasingly, we are far less tolerant of interruptions. For instance, our data driven society means everyone views fast wifi as a basic need and right.

The important steps being taken by the UK infrastructure sector are eminently exportable and the processes can be easily imitated. In the UK, we have cutting edge expertise in how to make them work.  The mission now for Arup and other UK companies with a global reach is how to educate client bodies in other countries about the great efficiencies that can be achieved from this new approach.

Tim Chapman was on the panel of the debate ‘Will the UK economy succeed in a low carbon world?’ on 9 June 2016, with Lord Mandelson, organised by Green Alliance with CAFOD, Christian Aid, Greenpeace, RSPB and WWF. Read the Storify record of the discussion.


Image: Blackfriars Station by Jim Linwood, via Flickr creative commons


  • Due to the rapid reduction in the price of solar and home energy storage products it is beginning to look like central government has backed the wrong infrastructure solutions to climate change. Going down the nuclear route, with all the risks around terrorism, is an unnecessarily dangerous option both for the UK and every other nation that builds new nuclear plants. It isn’t just the threat of a terrorist strike upon a nuclear plant, we also face the very real risk of deliberate damage to materials when in transit and the prospect of the use of a dirty bomb. If the UK encourages the rest of the world to take the nuclear route, rather than investing in the safer options, we bring forward the day when terrorists use our nuclear infrastructure as weapons against us. When that happens, anywhere in the world, it is entirely foreseeable what the public reaction will be – close down all the nukes!

    Far better to push ahead with decentralised solar and wind, backed up with home energy storage. This report in The Times shows just how far we have come in a very short period: –


    For heating, we can opt for some electricity from the grid, but the potential is huge to meet most of needs from bio-gas from various sources of waste, with demand reduced by a national infrastructure programme for the proper insulation of every home, office and factory.

    There will always be a case for base-load electricity, but we can push this down to the lowest possible level through a range of demand management techniques and far higher standards of energy efficiency. The remainder of our needs can come from two new sources: –

    1. Tidal. It is predictable centuries in advance, and far safer than nuclear, with none of the waste management and national security threats.

    2. CCS. Because we can now be certain we will not stay within the 1.5C threshold target sought at COP21, we know with absolute certainty that we will have to fall back on negative emissions, with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. Given that we will have to use the technology in the UK, and also the evidence from the first 15 CCS trials abroad, we can be sure it will work for us. Surely base-load from CCS, tidal and some green-gas has to be far safer and ultimately cheaper than nuclear?

  • Excellent article – the division that Tim proposes for infrastructure – capital, operational and use – should be adopted also by heavy industry (eg steel, chemicals) to reduce their GHG emissions.

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