In the same way that many countries accelerated vaccine rollouts in response to covid-19, industry leaders are calling for green transport projects to be fast-tracked in response to the climate crisis.

With transport the UK’s largest greenhouse gas-emitting sector, there is no time to waste in developing the country’s infrastructure in a way that supports a low-carbon economy. What is up for debate is how we get there and at what speed. Following the conclusions of UK industry leaders from the transport, technology, energy and power sectors, and academia, at roundtables hosted by COWI, the British embassy in Copenhagen and the Danish embassy in London, here are five steps that would accelerate the transition to carbon-neutral transport infrastructure.

Green value chain

The rapid rollout of vaccines and personal protective equipment across many countries demonstrated how cross-sector collaboration between industry, academia and government can bring innovations faster to market in a global emergency. Yet industry still often prioritises competition over co-operation on net zero, as epitomised in the north of England by the industrial clusters around the Humber working on rival zero-carbon plans north and south of the same river. Transport infrastructure project leaders called for more cross-sector knowledge sharing, so that individual insights and innovations can instead be cross-fertilised to drive collective progress.

Denmark has shown how value chain consortiums collectively de-risk green projects for investors, accelerate mass production and drive ‘sector coupling’, whereby separate sectors share clean power sources. The UK should also look to Denmark’s 13 public-private climate partnerships as a model for how to break down silos and combine knowledge and resources across every branch of industry. Regional industry clusters and supply chains for planned large infrastructure projects could be joined up in pursuit of net-zero goals.

Early-stage collaboration could result in separate infrastructure being holistically designed to intersect – so that, for example, a hydrogen plant could be sited closer to the UK’s planned high-speed rail network, HS2, to additionally drive diesel-free construction. Town planners should examine how new projects could drive decarbonisation in other sectors, such as transport, thus creating joined-up ‘whole system’ infrastructure planning.

Fast-track planning processes

One of the hallmarks of the UK’s speedy vaccine rollout was fast planning and procurement. In response to the climate crisis, we need to streamline and speed up transport infrastructure planning and fast-track green projects. Yet many renewably powered infrastructure projects remain mired in sluggish planning processes. It was highlighted at the roundtable events that an integrated energy park might take 15 years to secure planning approval due to a lack of renewables expertise among regulators. Similarly, experts estimated that the UK would need between eight and 15 carbon capture and storage projects to meet its net-zero ambitions, yet only two have been awarded government funding, despite several others meeting the criteria.

“The rapid rollout of vaccines and PPE across many countries demonstrated how cross-sector collaboration… can bring innovations faster to market”

Accelerating approvals would allow transport to be decarbonised faster and enable infrastructure operators to ‘fail forward’ by innovating with sustainable approaches at an earlier stage. Approval times for green capital projects should be significantly reduced and the government definition of ‘key projects’ expanded to encompass a broader array of transport infrastructure.

Regulate emissions at source

We need early regulatory intervention to reduce reliance on unsustainable construction practices and materials, such as steel and cement, at source. Universal standards and targets would incentivise and inform cross-sector collaboration and provide a common foundation for green innovation. Standards and regulations for emissions during the manufacturing phase would provide a common baseline and a benchmark for best practice across transport infrastructure projects.

Project owners should set three-year midterm milestones towards net zero for all contractors and bring supply chains together to share the responsibility, thereby fostering climate co-operation. One major UK rail infrastructure project leader explained how they helped reduce supply chain emissions by imposing a 50 percent carbon reduction target on all tier 1 contractors.

Regulatory involvement earlier in the supply chain would similarly help ensure transport infrastructure emissions are reduced at source. The UK should look to create supply chain carbon certifications to foster collaborative carbon efficiency through cross-sector carbon trading. Crucially, streamlined design standards are required to help fast-track new transport infrastructure designs and materials to market.

Reform UK insurance

Industry leaders noted how insurance policies deter small UK manufacturers from innovating with sustainable new raw materials and cause wasteful over-engineering of transport infrastructure. New raw materials are more expensive to insure because it is more difficult to predict the risk from novel materials with potentially unforeseeable behaviours. Common design standards for new materials would help to dramatically de-risk innovation and give companies the confidence to streamline designs and bring new materials to market without incurring liabilities.

The insurance industry should also develop smarter ways of insuring new materials to accelerate speed to market. Sensing technology could be incorporated in new materials so that they could be rapidly retrofitted to remove risks – such as through the ‘lean software development’ methodology, where new innovations are refined while in use.

Ultimately, the UK must strike a better balance between safety and innovation.

Re-use instead of recycling

Industry leaders outlined why recycling is an unsustainable model of sustainability for zero-emissions construction, as it involves energy-intensive transport and processing. We need to design transport infrastructure for durability and re-use, so that assets are created for second and third applications. This involves supply chain collaboration to ensure material components are created to be recombined into new applications at the design stage, thereby driving a circular economy.

More modular construction would ensure individual components were made for replacement and re-use. One major UK infrastructure project is re-using chalk slurry generated during tunnel construction to create a new grass and woodland ecosystem. Smart sensing technologies could go further and monitor construction materials across their lifecycles to prevent components deteriorating before re-use.

The covid-19 crisis has led to unprecedented cross-sector collaboration, regulatory innovation, accelerated procurement and proactive planning. With scientists warning that the potential for catastrophic warming hangs in the balance, we need to treat climate change as an equivalent threat.

Decarbonising transport will require an unparalleled effort uniting industry, government and academia through common standards and regulations, cross-market partnerships, sector coupling and consortiums. We will need more innovation-friendly insurance and planning policies that favour experimentation and speed to market. Crucially, we will need to re-imagine transport infrastructure as part of a cohesive ‘system of systems’ collaboratively designed around the same central goal of net zero.

Andy Sloan is managing director at COWI, a consulting firm specialising in engineering and environmental science and headquartered in Copenhagen; Emma Hopkins OBE is the UK’s ambassador to Denmark; a longer version of this article can be found on COWI.com