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The bumpy road to net zero

August saw the publication of National Highways’ first annual report on progress towards its net zero goals, Net zero highways: our 2030/ 2040/ 2050 plan, which it published in Summer 2021.

It’s an important document. Not just in itself, but because it shows the direction of travel for carbon reporting.

On first glance, the news looks good: three graphs of emissions from corporate activities, construction and maintenance and road uses, all showing reductions. Maintenance and construction emissions look to have fallen significantly from 733,500 tCO2e to 523,000 tCO2e, although as National Highways explains, this has a lot to do with schemes being pushed back to 2025.

The devil is no doubt in the detail, although this report is a high-level summary. For instance, it is interesting to see that while emissions from most sources have gone down, those from asphalt have gone up. Emissions from those carbon villains concrete and steel have fallen – but perhaps that is again due to the fact that certain new-build projects have been pushed back, while resurfacing and maintenance must go on.

National Highways also reports that it is on target to implement an accredited – and audited – construction carbon management system by the end of this year. That system should be of interest to any companies in National Highways’ supply chains – because the authority expects its tier 1 and tier 2 suppliers to also be using certified carbon management systems by 2025, which means that they could be looking for more detailed carbon data from their suppliers.

Although some construction companies will have carbon management systems in place already, like National Highways, they may find that they have to revisit and adjust them. National Highways reports that it has been comparing its existing processes to those required by the PAS 2080 standard, Carbon Management in Infrastructure (see earlier blog here for more info on that) and working out what changes it needs to make.

Some of the changes to come for construction and maintenance contractors include a move to 100% electric cars and vans on sites by 2030 and 100% renewable electricity for all compounds. National Highways has also been looking at low or zero carbon products, reporting that it has longlisted around 190 which it will assess for viability, technological readiness and dissemination routes.

It is worth revisiting what net zero means. This is what National Highways had to say in its original plan: “For National Highways, ‘net zero’ means cutting our Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions in absolute terms by a minimum of 4.2% each year from a 2020 baseline. This is in line with the 1.5°C ambition of the Paris Agreement.” (Scope 1 emissions are those produced directly by a company, Scope 2 emissions come from the power it buys and uses, Scope 3 are indirect emissions, such as those from its supply chain).

National Highways has set different targets for different groups of emissions. So corporate emissions will be net zero by 2030, maintenance and construction by 2040 and road users by 2050.

Offsetting will be part of the net zero mix. So, in 2029, National Highways will start offsetting its outstanding corporate emissions and from 2039 it will offset outstanding construction and maintenance emissions. It aims to do that on or near to its road network, for instance by planting trees on roadside verges.

Is there any absolute truth when it comes to carbon? With carbon accounting and management practices constantly evolving right now, it does feel like the goal posts are pretty mobile. For instance, a note in the report explains that corporate emissions figures reported to the Department for Transport differ from those in the progress report because of differences in the way emissions are calculated.

It’s going to be a bumpy road to net zero. But everyone is going to have to set off down that road sooner or later.

Thermal Road Repairs is a green technology company which supplies systems to improve the quality, cost and time efficiency of road repairs and paving – at a far lower environmental cost than traditional methods. We invest significantly in R&D, to create new technologies and to continuously improve our existing ones.

High output. Zero emission. Zero waste. Permanent solution.


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