• 20 September 2019

The road to Zero Carbon

In June the UK became the first G7 country to legislate for net zero carbon emissions by 2050. More ambitious than the 80% reduction commitment set out in the 2008 Climate Change Act, the new target is based largely on the Committee on Climate Change’s 2019 Progress Report.

We spoke to Neil Humphrey (Chief Operating Officer of Waterman Infrastructure & Environment) to get his insight into how this target could be met, the opportunities it offers and what this means for our industry.

Neil says; “Whilst questions remain in some quarters about the viability of a net zero carbon UK economy, delivery of the transition offers a host of opportunities across the board. With the Government committed to delivering on this promise, they will require fundamental and wide-ranging policy reforms to meet the target and inspire the nation to commit to the sort of behavioural changes needed to deliver significant results.”

Considering action to date on climate change, Neil continues; “Government action on the threat of climate change has steadily become more focused in recent months, resulting in the new carbon emission targets. This strong policy leadership will need to continue if we are to see the sweeping changes required to deliver the latest proposals. There are promising signs that associated policy and regulatory reforms, as suggested in the Committee on Climate Change’s 2019 Progress Report, could prioritise the type of innovative change needed to deliver the new target.”

The report offers a stark appraisal of progress to date, making suggestions for future action across all sectors and outlining the key areas a coherent national policy package would need to address. Recommendations for surface transport and its infrastructure focus on banning the sale of fossil fuel-powered vehicles, whilst rolling-out plans for zero emission HGV’s and making vast improvements to public transport, walking and cycling networks across the UK. Elsewhere, the report suggests the construction sector needs to phase out fossil fuel-consuming systems in all types of building, focusing instead on delivering energy efficient, low-carbon buildings which are adequately-designed to cope with the anticipated temperature rises.

The award-winning Royal College of Pathologists new HQ on Alie Street in London, retained existing concrete raft foundations, contributing towards an overall 51% carbon emission saving. This technique was also utilised at 6 Bevis Marks, Angel Place, Watermark Place and 20 Farringdon Street, all in London, where much of the existing structure was retained, contributing to considerable carbon savings in each case.


Neil believes significant investment in new technology and supporting infrastructure will be essential in delivering wide-spread reductions: “The practicalities and impact of exciting technologies such as hydrogen fuels, carbon capture and storage (CCS) and direct air capture (DAC) could be explored through sustained trials. Together with the increased roll-out of bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), this will trigger the development of associated distribution and infrastructure networks, leading to major opportunities in our sector.”

Neil continues; “How effectively individual companies – especially those outside of the key sectors aligned with climate change – adapt to help meet the target is perhaps the most significant challenge for the government’s aspirations. Industry, surface transport, agriculture and buildings will all need to massively reduce emissions by 2050 and this will drive innovation in materials and processes. The impact on built environment design and operation will trigger a major shift towards the use of new materials, technologies and techniques likely to deliver a period of rapid advancement across our industry.”

We used pre-cast concrete to great effect for the structural elements of both 7 Clarges Street (pictured) and Two Fifty One. This generated an estimated 80% less waste and construction traffic, when compared to traditional site-poured concrete construction techniques.


The challenge for our industry will be how we respond to the new emission targets at a project level, Neil believes. “Great advances in carbon emission-reducing technologies and techniques have been made in the past decade and the development industry has responded very well to step changes in planning legislation. Aside from the need for continued client take-up of cutting-edge tech, reductions in carbon emissions will need to become fundamental to every design decision taken. If this strategy is adopted across whole project teams, we have the opportunity to deliver the level of savings required to meet the 80% reduction targets.”

“Increasingly, existing building structures are being re-used, generating substantial carbon savings. Off-site manufacture also reduces embodied carbon of building components. Using this technique, quality can be vastly improved, reducing materials wastage and labour costs. Completed elements are delivered to project sites ready to install, offering reductions in carbon emissions that would have resulted from labour, plant and materials transportation.”

On an operational level, the new targets also mean that companies throughout the UK economy will need to reduce their carbon emissions from day-to-day activities. Neil’s team supports businesses as they incorporate sustainability and reduce carbon emissions across their investment decisions, embedding these changes in their business models and management of their operations. With tools such as Greenspace and the Biodiversity Toolkit, this is orientating companies in the change management needed to future proof their business’s, helping them to work towards the new 80% reduction target.

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