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National Highways: let’s talk about the environment

On 7 January 2022, National Highways announced the creation of a new division for Environmental Sustainability. It’s a move designed to underline the importance of environmental issues – and better communicate them to the public, politicians and other decision makers.

Although National Highways has been leading the way on carbon accounting and carbon reduction in many respects, talking about carbon alone may not be the best way to communicate with people outside the industry. The conversation needs to be widened to encompass the natural environment, biodiversity and impacts on nature.

The new Environmental Sustainability division has been tasked with delivering National Highway’s net zero targets which were published last summer: net zero for corporate emissions by 2030, for maintenance and construction by 2040 and for road users by 2050. The division will also develop a new environmental strategy and targets which will help inform future investment decisions.

The 50-person Environmental Sustainability team is headed up by Stephen Elderkin who has been at National Highways since 2015, previously having overseen the agency’s £1bn A12 upgrade scheme. Elderkin has a long track record in economics, carbon and energy efficiency, having worked across a raft of Government departments since starting his first role with Defra in 2007.

Speaking at the time of the announcement, Elderkin explained that it was important to get the message across – and that suppliers would play a vital role: “The challenge to us and the industry is to demonstrate how we are delivering improved environment outcomes; rapidly decarbonising transport and supporting biodiversity to create the cleaner, greener network a zero carbon Britain needs.

“The environmental challenges we face can only be achieved by working together – I look forward to working with our supply chain partners and stakeholders to achieve our ambitious goals.”

Public perception of roads and their negative environmental impact has caused some trouble for National Highways recently. Planning decisions on schemes including the Lower Thames Crossing, Stonehenge Tunnel and the dualling of the A1 in Northumberland have all been delayed due to environmental concerns.

National Highways’ move reminds us that, although reducing carbon is a good measure of progress in reducing environmental impacts, it is important for us as an industry to talk about the wider picture too. In the maintenance sector, for instance, we must talk about issues including air and noise pollution, reducing demand for new materials, reducing congestion and its impacts, and reducing rework – and its environmental costs.

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