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Highways England plans to make construction and maintenance net-zero by 2040

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.

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“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”.

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He added: “Highways England can play such an important role in driving this agenda forward by setting an overall ambition, by doing the things we can do but then having that position of influence with suppliers and manufacturers in how we deliver it. We’re flipping from people talking about good intent to actually taking action to achieve net zero.”

As a government agency, Highways England is awarded a funding settlement every five years in order to complete projects. As part of its £27 billion 2020-2025 Road Investment Strategy (RIS2), it pledged to open 52 new schemes and start work on 12 new major projects with more than 4000 miles worth of road capacity being added.

Surely the best way to decarbonise roads is to not build any more, though? This is the approach the Welsh government is taking. Earlier this year, it announced that it would suspend all new road-building projects and use the money this saved to upgrade existing highways and build infrastructure for active travel.

A spokesman explained: “We’re all facing the same climate-change emergency. To hit our net-zero target by 2050, we need to cut emissions in the next decade by 63%. By 2040, they need to fall by 89%. Transport makes up some 17% of our total emissions and so must play its part."

This approach is backed by campaign group Transport Action Network which has repeatedly taken the government to court over the programme. “Our concern is that Highways England is focused on reducing the construction emissions, but this is smaller than the increase in user emissions these new roads will generate. So it’s doing something that’s necessary but at the same time fiddling with the margins and avoiding tackling the real issue that we need to reduce traffic levels. To reach these targets, worse, you’re denying money to make things better, because you’ve spent it on the bad stuff.

Simmons defended his organisation’s approach: “The answer can’t lie in taking people or freight off roads or somehow constraining roads, it has to be about taking the carbon out of roads. Roads are so fundamental to the wealth of the country that we have to decarbonise them, rather than taking the blunt approach of saying ‘we will constrain traffic’ or ‘we will stop road-building’.”

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Asked about the biggest challenge facing Highways England’s plan to hit a net-zero road-building plan by 2040, Simmons told Autocar the organisation needs to focus on carbon emissions in the same way that it focuses on safety.

“To really nail this, there’s quite a culture change that’s required within the whole sector, and we need a focus on carbon,” he explained. “There needs to be a way in which carbon is factored into every decision that’s taken within the life of a project.

“Getting everyone involved familiar with the concept, giving them the right tools to support that decision-making is absolutely achievable, but it’s a journey that the industry is on. The behaviour of factoring carbon into every decision we take is going to be really critical.”

Other ways of reducing emissions

s well as reducing the impact that construction of new roads is having on the environment, Highways England is taking measures to reduce levels of pollution among its road users.

“We’re taking a number of steps to tackle emissions in some of the air quality hotspot areas, and in some cases – in a very focused way – that’s putting reduced speed limits in place,” investment strategy boss Adam Simmons told Autocar, referencing a 60mph speed limit that is being imposed on certain sections of the motorway network.

He added that “the rapid shift to EVs will help some of the tailpipe emissions that contributes to air quality problems” in the future.

Highways England is also planting trees to offset carbon emissions. “We’re doing a lot to improve biodiversity,” said Simmons. “At the moment, the plan is around no net loss of biodiversity, but soon there will be a net gain of biodiversity.

“We have land alongside motorways and A-roads where we can plant and manage biodiversity. This includes planting trees to absorb and lock up carbon.”

Daniel Puddicombe

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RightSaidFred 23 August 2021

It feels as though road markings have already fallen victim to 'carbon neutrality'... gone are the stinky old furnaces on the back of a truck belching smoke and fumes.  Now we have road markings that disappear after 3 years because there's no durability to the paint used.  Yay, progress!

The roundabouts near me which have been 'cleverly' redesigned to accommodate more traffic by squeezing an extra lane in are now extremely hazardous because you have a mix of locals knowing where they should be positioned and newbies who are forced to guess thanks to invisible lane markings.

Strider 23 August 2021

Petrol and diesel vehicles create substantially more emissions when operating in traffic that regularly changes speed. Free-flowing roads are therefore substantially more environmentally responsible if you are thinking about climate change and air quality. What evidence is there that not having new roads that enable this will put enough people off making a journey by car - or more importantly, a delivery by truck - to make it worth forcing them into slower, much more transient journeys?

Adrian Barlow 23 August 2021
Living in Indonesia, as I do, a country with a population of 260 million people, with a massive programme of new motorway construction and a huge programme of creating an astounding High-Speed-Rail network, I'm laughing my socks off at the British who stupidly think that by switching to electric cars and following a ridiculous 'decarbonisation' strategy, you will have any impact upon 'The Climate' while China is constructing two coal-fired power stations a week........
Oh, I'm still laughing at you, and so are Russia and China.