23 November 2021 | Environment

Comment: Meeting net zero

Emily See, Senior Consultant, Infrastructure Asset Management at Yotta discusses meeting the UK’s net zero goals with highways lifecycle planning. 


The UK government has set out ambitious targets to achieve ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, putting British roads at the heart of its programme to a greener future. According to an indicative National Highways roadmap, the government plans to first cut the direct carbon emissions by 2030, maintenance and construction emissions by 2040, before arriving to its final goal of citizens travelling using net zero transport by mid-century.

While calling this ambition ‘a colossal challenge’, the National Audit Office points to piecemeal funding as a factor inhibiting the longer-term planning local governments need to hit such hard targets. The truth is very few authorities have sufficient resources to maintain every road and footpath in good condition. In fact, many wrestle to plan for the full lifecycle of their assets, posing a question whether the pressure to save the planet is too much for UK highway departments.


Provisioning for longer-term emissions targets

Today’s lifecycle models and techniques allow local governments to plan the whole lifecycle of their highways assets in a much quicker way. They can easily expand their parameters to include functions such as carbon emissions and climate change impacts. With in-house expertise and comprehensive data, authorities can confidently explore different scenarios and every aspect of their budgets, taking into account the £3.4 billion funding cut for National Highways announced recently by the Chancellor and the £400 million cut from local council road budgets.

Despite the cuts, local governments are still tasked with meeting the net zero targets by set dates. The Local Highways Maintenance Incentive Fund will therefore ensure that authorities are considering climate factors in their highway maintenance initiatives. Thus, it is vital elected members include climate data in lifecycle models and use it to better inform their decisions. Even when the approach is more costly, the scenario that sees a lower carbon output for the council from its highways operations should certainly be considered for selection.

It is important for local authorities to consider the whole life carbon outputs of the initially cheaper lower carbon options. Whilst on the surface they seem to save money over the course of a year, they may not be cost-effective by any means as they require annual renewal across three decades, emitting more carbon than if the council had kept the original treatments.

There may be initially higher carbon output, but less maintenance and therefore output equals less carbon over the longer term.


Balancing short and long-term plans

The data from highways lifecycle planning solutions allows local authorities to decide whether a particular low carbon option is indeed the most environmentally-friendly approach. While some councillors look for short-term wins when battling the budget, the right balance must be struck today to ensure the entire highways lifecycle provisions longer-term goals too.

Whatever the precise life-span of each carriageway or footway, local authorities need a best practice methodology for assessing the carbon emissions of roads which they can fold into their long term planning. This should include the data from large contractors commissioned to go out and lay the tarmac as well as information about temperatures, carbon emissions and specifications around different treatments. Given the right quality of data, officers can assign a carbon or nitrous oxide (NOx) output from the treatment and add it into the model.


Accuracy is key

This approach still remains in its infancy while most councils are currently discovering their baseline. At the moment, the focus of most lifecycle planning is on budget and performance, however, change is imminent due to the rising pressures to meet net zero targets. The new approach will deliver more insight and as a result, give councillors more options. They will be able to understand what the budget should be if they want a certain level of carbon emission. Authorities will have the choice of reducing carbon at higher cost or sticking with their existing carbon output and flatlining their expenditure. Whatever the choice, it has to be supported and driven by accurate data as only then will senior decision-makers be well equipped to make the right final call.


Evidence-based decision-making in a tough climate

Even when faced with the budget cuts, it is time local authorities prioritise climate change in their highway lifecycle planning. In order to do that, they need to gain the capability to input a range of data sources, including climate goals. They can then understand how different investments impact long-term goals and the condition of specific assets. With evidence-based decision-making, councils will be able to minimise the costs whilst increasing efficiency of even more stretched resources. That is how they can play their part in meeting the ambitious net zero targets by 2050.