While the measures being taken to decarbonise road transport in the coming years have been covered in great detail, less media attention has been paid on how to decarbonise roads themselves.
Highways England recently released a report outlining its approach to lowering emissions in the future. In essence, the government agency wants its own operational emissions (for instance, from road lighting, signage and its vehicle fleet) to be net zero by 2030 and road construction and maintenance to be net zero a decade later.
The latter target is likely to be a challenge to achieve, given that the construction of roads is reliant on materials such as concrete, steel and asphalt and there aren’t any zero-carbon options currently available. Even the Climate Change Committee, a non-governmental public body, has suggested that these materials should be net zero by 2050 at the earliest.
“Fundamentally, concrete, steel and asphalt are materials that do generate carbon in their manufacture, and we know that right now there’s not a purely zero-carbon material for those things that can be bought,” said Adam Simmons, Highways England’s director of future road investment strategy and government relations. “That said, there are things that we can do as a company to drive that change and work with the manufacturers and supply chains. Already there are some lower-carbon concretes on the market, plus things like warm asphalt, and we’re starting to use those.”
While green alternatives to the core road-building materials haven’t yet been developed, Simmons said that having a defined target date for when the organisation intends to hit net zero will focus the minds of its suppliers to innovate sooner.
“We want to be saying to suppliers ‘we want to be using these materials’. We want to give them the confidence that they can bring them to market, and we’re seeing that through. We’re in a position where to get to net-zero materials, particularly concrete, steel and asphalt, there’s not a product that we can go and buy.
“This is a journey, but Highways England can facilitate this in our approach by giving clarity about the types of products that are required and set the challenge.
“We’re seeing this with all of our supply chain. I don’t think anyone is saying ‘no, no, no, we will go slow on this’: everyone is very ambitious and positive.”
Many of Highways England’s suppliers also work with other large public-sector construction companies, and Simmons told Autocar that it’s engaging with the likes of Network Rail, High Speed 2 and Transport for London to work with creating cross-industry standards for green materials, “since collectively we can do even more to set expectations in a clear and coherent way”.