More zero, less net – Adam Crossley, Skanska

by | Oct 17, 2022 | Construction, News, Policy, Sustainability

Adam Crossley, Director of Environment at Skanska UK, explains how we need to get back to basics when tackling net-zero challenges in the highways sector.

Don’t over-complicate the journey to achieving net-zero carbon emissions.

We’re living through a period of significant change for society driven by the impacts of climate change. And we need look no further than the building and construction sector to find one of the world’s biggest emitters of carbon. Buildings equivalent to a city the size of Paris are being built every week, but less than one per cent of them are assessed to determine their carbon footprint. The good news is we’ve started the journey, but we have a long way to go. It means we have a huge opportunity, now, to do something about it.

Focusing on the basics

One of our biggest opportunities lies in focusing on the basics, through targeting the highest emitting sources of carbon emissions first. Approximately 70% of emissions in our sector arise from steel, concrete, asphalt and plant. We have to significantly reduce and then effectively eliminate carbon in these areas in order to get to net-zero emissions across our industry.

It starts with a clear vision that sets targets, milestones and clarity on expectations. We’ve seen this over recent years with organisations including National Highways, HS2 and Network Rail all publishing their net-zero carbon plans. In its roadmap to net-zero, National Highways has set its expectation to achieve net zero road maintenance and construction by 2040. The plan is backed by evidence and has impressive sub-targets to bring it to life. Unsurprisingly, high on the priority list is tackling carbon emissions caused by asphalt, cement and steel.

Being better together

So how do we go about it? We have the best chance of success through joining forces, sharing knowledge and working collaboratively – across different market sectors and countries. The good news is it’s happening. On our M42 Junction 6 scheme, for example, we’ve received funding from National Highways to work alongside the National Composites Centre, Basalt Technologies and Tarmac to compare traditional steel reinforced concrete with a low carbon concrete, reinforced with basalt fibre. The trial, on a haul road, is proving a success and we’re now looking at the next stage of the project.

But it also poses a challenge, which is common across the industry. In order to rollout innovations at scale they need to be proven to ensure compliance with the relevant standards and accreditations. That’s absolutely the right thing to do. But we all know that this takes time, often years. Maybe there is an alternative option. If the current standard specifies a 120-year design-life, but a carbon-friendly material may have a reduced design-life, could the standard be adapted instead? It’s important issues like this that we need to focus on as an industry so we can find ways to safely introduce new innovations and ways of working, while supporting delivery of our net-zero carbon ambitions.

Achieving common understanding

We also need to work alongside materials specialists and related industry bodies. For example, Skanska are founding signatories to both the ConcreteZero and SteelZero pledges, committing us to procuring, specifying and stocking 100% net zero steel and working with net-zero concrete by 2050, with interim commitments on the way. It’s industry leading, but we also know that the 2050 target is 10 years behind where National Highways needs us to be. Cutting that gap, such as through designing steel out or using replacements, requires significant investment and collaborative working.

It’s essential therefore that we involve and bring our supply chain with us. We need the expertise of our partners and we need to ensure there is a common level of understanding, including in industry specifications such as PAS2080. We need to prioritise and focus on what is important in delivering the biggest carbon reduction impacts.

Market confidence

Although collaboration is important, let’s not over-complicate the challenge. We need to remember that the majority of our emissions result from just a handful of key emitters, so if we can tackle these directly we’ll solve most of the challenge. To do that we need confidence and clarity in the pipeline of projects at national level, which is so important for industry investment and can super-charge innovation. For example, if we know what our plant and fleet needs will be for years to come, we can demonstrate that demand to manufacturers, including Tier 2 and Tier 3 contractors, stimulating investment in electric, hydrogen and other clean fuel alternatives.

It’s just one example of how we can achieve transformation – where the collective strength of Government, industry bodies, customers, contractors and supply chain all come together. Let’s keep it simple and work together to make net-zero carbon a reality.