Chris Richards, ICE Director of Policy: Covid-19 and the opportunity it gives us to create a greener future

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Category: General news

We had no idea six months ago just how much our lives would change in such a short space of time. The Coronavirus pandemic has swept across the world, leaving a wake of tragedy and destruction. It’s not over yet, but it is time to start thinking about what comes next.

One thing Covid-19 has offered us is the chance to see what society can look like with fewer carbon emissions. We have a responsibility, one that is mandated by government and our moral compasses, to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. That type of fundamental shift in thinking, in planning, in policy-making and in delivery is huge – but as we start to rebuild the economy from one of the worst health pandemics the country has faced, we have an opportunity to make those significant changes.

Covid-19 offers the government a once-in-a-generation chance to recalibrate the economy and move the UK towards a net-zero future. A green recovery that filters across all aspects of society, not least in the built environment sector.

We know, as a sector, that we need to do better. Infrastructure is responsible for more than 60% of the total UK emissions – so we need to rethink how to design, build and operate it in the future. There is a lot of innovation within the sector already – from building digital twins to increasing the use of renewable energy. But we can’t do it alone. We need policy to create a supportive environment that empowers the sector, but also influences users’ behaviour.

One area that we need to address is skills. Ensuring the UK has the capabilities within the infrastructure sector to deliver the transition to net zero is essential. These include necessary skills to realise key net-zero technologies such as the deployment of heat pumps, carbon capture and storage, and low-carbon hydrogen.

In our annual State of the Nation report, published this month, we outlined the need for an Infrastructure Skills Plan to address this. Such a plan would help build that capability – and ideally will be delivered as part of a wider Net-Zero Infrastructure Plan.

But this year’s report also went further than just suggesting policy interventions. We recognise that it is not government’s responsibility alone to achieve the target.

Our newly launched Carbon Project will turn the report’s recommendations into tangible outputs for civil engineers to implement and use so that they can start making changes within their practices and help deliver a more sustainable future.

Over the coming months, we will be working towards bringing about a transformation in business models through provision of robust thought leadership, nurturing collaboration and building knowledge and skills.

We want to make carbon accountancy ‘business as usual’ for those operating in the infrastructure space, and to provide a wider evidence base for decision-makers to legislate for a net zero infrastructure system.

We also recognise that there is an important and ever-growing role for regions and nations individually.

Devolution would enable the North to take greater responsibility for the planning and delivery of its infrastructure networks, but it is important that a coherent strategy is put in place to ensure that this is done effectively.

The question of what such a strategy should look like is part of a piece of work we have underway. Our consultation (launching on 15 July) asks industry and stakeholders to share their thoughts about the role of infrastructure in the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda. ICE has called previously for regional infrastructure bodies to be set up, but how should these be funded? How have priorities, both social and economic, changed in the context of Covid-19 and how will this impact how different areas, particularly the Northern Powerhouse, think about future infrastructure planning and delivery? We’re keen to hear your views, so do submit a response.

Infrastructure plays an incredibly important role in all our lives. Civil engineers have the skill sets, and the desire, to create structures and networks that can help us all live in a society that is more sustainable – and that can only be a good thing.

Chris Richards, Director of Policy, ICE

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