Will the National Infrastructure Strategy be enough to hit net-zero?

construction

By Joana Palha, Manager, Innovation Incentives, Ayming.

The government has voiced bold infrastructure ambitions for some time. Yet, simultaneously, the UK pledged to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Considering the environmental impact construction has, achieving both will only be possible if the construction sector finds ways to reduce its carbon footprint. This is why the Government’s National Infrastructure Strategy is so vital. The recently unveiled strategy aims to drive forward infrastructure in a way that will help the UK achieve net zero, with R&D being a cornerstone of the puzzle.

There can be no denying the scale of the problem: building accounts for 40% of carbon emissions in the UK and 60% of all waste. Historically, the construction sector has lagged behind other industries when it comes to innovation. This has largely down to lack of funding, as opposed to lack of desire, as construction companies typically have smaller margins, meaning they lack the cash for investing in innovation projects.

The strategy hopes to address this deficit, and places innovation at the heart of this with an entire chapter being devoted to ‘building faster, better and greener’. The aim is to transform the construction sector to make it more productive and sustainable. Specifically, we should be aiming to make infrastructure as environmentally friendly as possible and design new buildings to be net zero, or – even better – energy-positive, whether that be through battery storage or other smart solutions.

The tides have gradually been turning. Construction companies now realise that channelling funding into R&D isn’t a luxury but a necessity, both from an environmental and commercial standpoint. The businesses case is clear: in our recent International Innovation Barometer report into the state of global innovation we found that the most popular answer for why businesses are undertaking sustainable innovation projects is because it will improve business performance. For instance, if you reduce your energy bill, it reduces your cost and has a positive impact.

Now that firms are increasing their investment in innovation, progress is accelerating, with technology that has been talked about for a long time, whether this is robotics or alternative materials, becoming more common. Part of this progress has come from construction borrowing from advances in other fields, but there has also been a wealth of construction specific R&D, such as advances to material science and understanding of structures and failure modes. As found by our report, technology is seen as the most important factor that firms need to help them to not only successfully innovate but innovate sustainably.

It comes down to modernising the building process from end to end. Diesel power still reigns supreme on construction sites, which requires immediate attention to decarbonize energy use. Even though a few of major contractors are trialling hybrid generators, this is only on small scale and diesel needs to be phased out faster.  Waste, similarly, is a large challenge. However, materials producers and contractors can utilize technology to tackle construction’s huge waste stream to re-purpose raw materials, which firms such as AIUK and Hanson are looking into

A specifically untapped area the strategy highlights is enhancing data analytics. The cost of IT infrastructure has come down massively, meaning that firms can reap the benefits for a minimal cost. These insights can then be used to develop tracing to understand where the issues in the supply chain lie. Concrete is an area that should be targeted as it accounts for 8% of humanity’s carbon footprint.

Clearly, despite momentum in sustainability, the construction sector has only just scratched the surface. R&D investment must now be scaled, and the strategy provides a framework to facilitate progress despite current uncertainty. Covid-19 has been a valuable lesson in the need to evolve to survive. And, more than ever, firms recognise must continue on this course and prioritise R&D to modernise construction processes. In doing so, the sector will empower the UK to achieve both its green and infrastructure ambitions in tandem.