We spoke to Lara Young, Group Climate Change Director at Costain and Chair of the Institute of Civil Engineers’ Carbon Champion Review Panel, to understand the steps the industry is taking to drive to Net Zero by 2050.

In our new series, The Hardest Jobs in Net Zero, we explore the oxymorons of infrastructure – those roles that, on the surface, seem to be anything but sustainable.

The global built environment is responsible for 40% of carbon emissions and 50% of extracted materials. If the UK is to meet its target of reaching net zero by 2050, it is critical that construction is decarbonised.

“No organisation can achieve net zero on its own”, begins Lara. “A huge part of Costain’s focus is ensuring that we lead by example and enable others to achieve their targets. Realistically, it is only when other organisations achieve their targets that we can achieve ours – which means collaborating across industry is paramount.”

 Walking the talk

After years of growing awareness of the need to accelerate decarbonisation, for Lara, the time for delivery is now.

“It is now sink or swim. We either take action or we will cease to exist. We have to follow through on that initial enthusiasm with action, doing what we said we were going to do. This is true for every organisation.

“Awareness of the topic has grown since 2018/19. The build up to COP26 saw a huge amount of pressure to enshrine commitments. COP26 was a good accelerator for organisations adopting targets, though it is now imperative that they are delivered upon.”

 Cutting through the noise

While there is ambition to deliver credible change across infrastructure, Lara admits that there is confusion about what meaningful change looks like.

“The sheer amount of confusion and intangibility around the topic is one of the challenges we face. The difficulty is in cutting through the noise around net zero and understanding what it actually means in real life.

“However, there is a huge amount of ambition now, which is brilliant. There is a genuine willingness to do the right thing and engagement with the topic. But not necessarily the maturity to understand exactly what is needed to be done.”

 Risk taking and innovation

Technological innovation is a key component of the drive to decarbonise work practices in construction. Lara believes it is crucial that those new technologies are applied in the right way once they have passed the theoretical design period.

“The industry is really great at trialling and testing new technologies, however we struggle to industrialise that innovation once it moves past the point of being tested and trialled. I think governance and policy could help make that happen more quickly and at scale.

“However, having the right technology is not the be all and end all, it needs to be used to drive tangible change. Using technology and innovation in the most effective manner to achieve the outcomes we need is key to achieving net zero.”

 Moment of clarity

There is much to be hopeful for on the horizon. From her experience with clients, Lara believes that the industry is fast approaching a moment of realisation, in acknowledging that no-one has all the answers.

“We do need to become comfortable in admitting that we only know part of the solution. There is this balance between wanting to do the right thing, but also trying to respond to pressure to equate scale with success. It is often these grandiose projects and pledges that may be harming the route to delivering credible and meaningful change.

“My role seeks to ensure that we can cut through the noise to ensure we do not get distracted with ‘nice to do’ projects, which may be great project but not the most relevant at this point in time. I think the priority for most projects is that while there is a genuine desire for change, there is uncertainty about what is needed and how best to go about this.”

Leading by example

It is clear that a collaborative effort is needed to deliver net zero in construction. Not simply by promoting best practice but leading that change and acting on commitments.

“If we are expecting others to do the same, we have to lead by example. We are more mature than many and we can support our supply chain on the journey to net zero. There are also niche areas where other partners will be more informed than us and we can learn from their experience.

“By 2023, we will provide a low carbon option on every project as a standard.  Over time, this will ensure we are driving behaviour change with our customers and flagging opportunities to make an impact.”

Clear communication

Simplicity and clarity are the watchwords for any organisation approaching messaging on sustainability goals. Ensuring any claims are backed up by credible, deliverable results is critical, as Lara explains.

“We should all be striving to keep our language accessible to everyone, ensuring everyone understands the role they will play in helping their organisation to achieve net zero.

Organisations should be celebrating success and demonstrating the progress they are making in delivering their decarbonisation commitments.”

Construction has demonstrated the innovative streak to trial radical technologies required to decarbonise. It is critical to match this with the will to implement those technologies to bring about the required revolution.

More than this, the innovative fervour must be accompanied by a readiness to admit where gaps in knowledge are and a zeal to build on them, to construct a clear path to decarbonisation.

Find out more about Lara and the team’s efforts to achieve net zero here.

And stay tuned to Copper’s channels for more articles in our search for The Hardest Jobs in Net Zero.