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When zero carbon isn’t zero carbon

If someone claims they have built a net zero carbon road, do they mean:

  1. They have built a road and, in doing so, have emitted no carbon, on balance.

  2. They have built a road which, at the end of its lifetime, will have emitted no carbon on balance.

  3. They have built a road with the carbon produced on balance cancelled out by offsetting.

Recently, there have been a spate of press releases claiming that a ‘net zero road’ has been built but, dig beneath the headlines, and it’s fairly safe to say that the answer will invariably be c).

Hypothetically, it would be possible to make any new road a net zero carbon one, if you spent enough money on offsetting. The sum which is done when someone wants a ‘net zero carbon’ construction project is: how much does it cost to offset the remaining carbon emissions versus how much it costs to keep investing in technology – such as solar farms, wind turbines or other renewable energy generation – to get to net zero.

Unless companies and road owners are upfront about how much carbon they have had to offset, it’s impossible for others to gauge how much progress has been made in actually cutting carbon emissions.

Carbon offsetting involves paying others to balance out the carbon emissions you have produced. You can buy carbon credits or invest in carbon offsetting projects.

Carbon credits can be purchased from other companies who have produced less carbon than an amount set by regulatory caps. They can be traded between countries and on public and private markets.

Carbon offsetting schemes involve investing in a project such as renewable energy or tree planting. Some companies have pledged only to invest in homegrown offsetting projects – which is why new forests are springing up around the UK on what was until very recently farmland. There are international offsetting standards – but these are not necessarily applied or demanded.

Clearly regulation and standards in this area will develop and tighten up. But in the meantime, is it the right approach to invest in carbon credits or carbon offsetting projects in order to create a good news story? Organisations such as the UK Green Building Council, in definitions of net zero carbon, emphasise that carbon offsetting should only be used as a very last resort, after all other avenues for reducing carbon have been exhausted.

Instead of paying to offset carbon, a more constructive approach would be to invest in R&D to create new low carbon and zero-carbon technologies or to improve existing ones. At Thermal Road Repairs, we have invested hundreds of thousands of pounds since 2015 in developing our technology so that the repair process itself is low carbon – producing over 80% less carbon than a traditional pothole fix. We continue that investment in R&D today; recent steps forward have included improvements on our solar panels, and more advances are in the pipeline.

If we really want to make faster progress down that road to net zero, we need more honesty and more transparency. If carbon offsetting is involved, let’s hear how much carbon has been offset – and how it has been offset. Let’s talk about whole life carbon costs, not just the carbon spent up to when a road is laid. Otherwise, we are all involved in a competition to find out who is the most artful at greenwashing.

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. Low emission. Permanent solution.


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