How do you deliver major road projects while driving towards net zero?

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

Today, we speak to Stephen Elderkin, Director of Environmental Sustainability at National Highways, about the challenges he faces in delivering huge road building projects across the country.

“This is a huge challenge and there is so much left to be done. But I’m surrounded by great people doing great things, so I generally sleep well at night.

“And that’s what this requires, a huge joint effort across our industry, supported with the right policies. I am encouraged because I see good decisions being made and we’re moving in the right direction.”

Stephen is at the heart of National Highway’s net zero and Roads for Good efforts, which are focused on three clear milestones:

  • Net zero corporate emissions by 2030
  • Net zero across maintenance and construction divisions by 2040
  • Net zero travel across the network by 2050

Cutting corporate emissions by 2030

“80% of our corporate emissions come from electricity, so we’re investing more than £100m to swap all of our lights to LEDs,” explains Stephen.

 “We’re also moving 1,300 vehicles to electric. We also own around 30,000 hectares of land that isn’t farmed, so we’ve committed to plant three million trees. In combination, you can see we have a clear path to drive the necessary reduction in our corporate emissions.”

The hardest part – net zero construction by 2040

When it comes to road maintenance and construction, no one knows the exact solution, but it’s best to begin by understanding where emissions come from. For Stephen and the team at National Highways, there are three key areas: plant, transport and materials.

“We’ve committed to zero emission plant on site by 2030, which requires further electrification of equipment and improvements to recharging. Hydrogen is also being explored. And then we look at what we can control, such as transport. Everything delivered to our sites must be done so in zero emission HGVs by 2040.

 “Looking at materials, people tend to look at big, glamorous solutions – hydrogen powered furnaces for steel, carbon capture storage for cement kilns – but they require major investment over the long-term.”

Asking Stephen about the short-term, is a solution simply to build less?

“We look at the carbon reduction hierarchy – build nothing, build less, build smart, build efficiently – and do all we can to reach the right step for each project. Ensuring high standards of quality control, right first time to reduce rework and cutting materials through lean design are all major contributors to reducing carbon in construction.

 “Technology is also a major contributor to more productive use of our existing assets. For example, digital tools give us better control of the traffic flow. If we can move 15% more flow through our existing network, we reduce the case for needing to build more lane capacity. While that doesn’t apply everywhere of course and maintenance is still a huge requirement, digital roads of the future are an encouraging sign of efficiency, which is what net zero is really all about.”

 Net zero travel by 2050

Of the three milestones set at National Highways, this is arguably the one it cannot control. As an open access network, people will drive what they want, where they want, but the rise of electric vehicles is hugely encouraging, as Stephen explains.

“Fundamental economics have changed dramatically; batteries are 95% cheaper than they were 20 years ago and that will only continue to improve.

 “Then there’s the change in law and the overall cost of electric vehicles, which will soon drop below combustion engine vehicles, I’m sure. And the Government’s Project Rapid, which aims to improve charging infrastructure by delivering fast charging points at more locations across the country.

 “Even my wife and I fight over who gets to drive the electric car. It’s easier, quieter and smoother. Not to mention the fact it’s better for the environment.”

Behaviour is a major barrier

Considering its 2030, 2040 and 2050 targets, you might think it’s plain sailing for Stephen and the team. But there is another major barrier to achieving net zero.

“In my view, one of the toughest challenges is the need for behavioural change. Take concrete; for many, if you need two cubic metres, you mix three. Or you excavate a wider trench than you need and just fill the excess with concrete.

“We need to change this mind-set, not because it’s a cost saving exercise but because it’s a carbon saving exercise. Using quality controlled batching plants for concrete mixes can reduce the amount of carbon intensive cement, potentially saving thousands of tonnes of carbon.

“One enabler here will be seeing carbon added to contracts. Enforcing set requirements will enforce change.

Optimistic for the future

With all that said, Stephen remains optimistic for the future, citing people and innovation as encouraging signs of where we’re headed.

“I attended a partner’s company-wide conference the other day. A business you wouldn’t associate with sustainability. 3,000 people in the room. And carbon emissions was by far the biggest theme of the day.

“While it’s hugely challenging and requires a shift in mind-sets, approaches and technologies, my job isn’t the hardest in net zero because every day I see brilliant people working on brilliant ideas. I am very positive about the future and achieving our targets for the years and decades to come.”

Stephen’s experience raises an important set of questions; how do we change behaviour? What other industries require a similar shift in mind-set? And whose responsibility is it to affect change? If companies like National Highways are doing all they can (within reason) to achieve net zero, where do you draw the line between what you can and cannot control?

It’s clear that no single group can answer these questions but, like Stephen, first you identify the problem and then take steps to solve it. The question now is: are you taking the right steps and who must you influence to deliver lasting change?

Find out more about Stephen and the teams 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.