Urgent action on carbon measurement needed, according to academic group

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Unreliable data is responsible for variances of up to 2000% in forecasting carbon usage, prompting an urgent call for common data standards, reporting structures and changes in asset design.

The new report by the Net Zero Infrastructure Industry Coalition (NZIIC) at Teeside University has seemingly uncovered huge variances in the way that carbon data is measured, managed, and assessed for planning needs across the infrastructure sector. The authors say the result is a lack of understanding, obscuring the true impact of infrastructure projects on carbon emissions.

The coalition believes a common industry-wide approach is essential to the availability, quality and transparency of data, underpinning initiatives to achieve net-zero carbon by 2050. It is also calling for significant change in how new assets are designed at feasibility stage.

The report, titled ‘Is Our Carbon Wallet Empty?’, states that the infrastructure sector will miss legally binding carbon budgets that place restrictions on the total amount of greenhouse gases the UK can emit. The report makes four key recommendations:

  • The adoption of an agreed carbon zero definition that can be clearly assessed
    • The industry must create a single, universally recognised, managed and constantly improving source of carbon emission factors, for the full range of construction products and building materials that are used in infrastructure projects.
  • Planning framework guidance for carbon assessment to be adjusted to be in line with the Paris Agreement
    • We need agreed carbon data measuring if we are to break the cycle of short-term solutions resulting from short timescales, short political cycles, and reactive solutions.
  • Developing a shared understanding of the sector’s share of the UK carbon budget
    • The development of common, long-term sector targets and trajectories, from which individual companies and projects can be measured against.
  • Ensure the availability of a carbon neutral design option for every asset
    • If we are to achieve carbon neutral infrastructure, we must ensure that every asset solution has a carbon neutral outline design option, prior to planning and tender, by the asset owners.

“We need to create a common carbon currency that works for everyone, from government and planning authorities to customers, contractors and the supply chain,” said Chris Hayes, NZIIC board member and Sustainability Operations Director with Swedish construction and development firm Skanska.

“While there is plenty of political and industry commitment to driving down carbon consumption, we lack consistent methods to achieving it. Put simply, the will is there but the tools are not.”

Ruth Finlayson, Carbon Manager for Skanska and Project Manager for this coalition report added: “If we cannot quantify our carbon usage, we cannot know the impact on the UK carbon budget. How can individual projects and the wider infrastructure sector plan their journey to net-zero without knowing the proportion of the UK’s budget they should be working to?”

The NZIIC harnesses the collective expertise of those who commission, deliver and operate infrastructure at scale, to influence the industry and UK Government on how infrastructure can achieve net zero carbon by 2050.

Its latest report is said to be the result of a thorough audit of the existing embodied carbon measurement in the infrastructure pipeline. This project-by-project approach was necessary in order to obtain a true picture, where supply chains are long and complex. The analysis and recommendations carry extra weight because they source data and represent views from across industry and academia, says a statement from the group.

Dominic Burbridge, Associate Director at the Carbon Trust, said: “Good data underpins good decision making, and good carbon data is essential in understanding how to plan, design, deliver, and operate infrastructure.

“With infrastructure accounting for over 13% of the UK Carbon footprint and directly influencing a further 41%, we must get to a point where we can consistently measure it! Decisions need to be based on common understanding of the carbon impact, and these recommendations point the way. The time for action is now.”