Changing Practices and Mindset to Achieve Carbon Neutrality

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By Luke Carothers

While the AEC industry develops solutions to combat climate change, many governments are beginning to put policies into place that will facilitate future usage of these solutions.  This is the case in the UK where the government has recently announced plans to be net carbon zero by the year 2050.  Part of this plan includes imposing reforms on red diesel fuel usage, which accounts for nearly 15 percent of the UK’s diesel consumption and is responsible for 14 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.  To achieve these goals, and, in many cases surpass them, professionals in the UK are looking to change not only the practices that are most responsible for carbon emissions, but also the mindset that facilitates future bad practices.  According to James Maclean, CEO of Land & Water, the industry has a “massive change to go through” in the way infrastructure projects are delivered on behalf of the government in the UK.  Based in the UK, Land & Water is a leading inland waterway and coastal and civil and environmental engineering company.  Throughout the company’s 40-year history, Land & Water have repeatedly demonstrated the ability to find creative and effective solutions for complex challenges wherever land and water meet.

One of the biggest changes in terms of practice is finding an efficient alternative for the gas-based fuel that powers much of the heavy machinery.  Red diesel, which is dyed red to distinguish it from regular diesel fuel, is used primarily to power work vehicles in the agriculture and construction industries.  Switching from red diesel to alternative fuels such as HVO constitutes a massive shift in the current business practices.  The use of red diesel is currently influenced by a tax rebate, but that is set to end in April 2022, making the price of the fuel double.  Maclean and his team at Land & Water have been at the forefront of putting HVO to use.  They are currently in the process of switching their fuel supply chain entirely away from gas to HVO.  HVO, unlike many other alternative fuels, runs in standard diesel engines, giving the embodied carbon already invested in machine fleets a second life.  Additionally, according to Maclean, his company has experienced a roughly 3 percent fuel savings by volume when using HVO instead of red diesel.  This is due to HVO’s more linear carbon chain which allows it to burn more efficiently.  The development and trialing of HVO has the potential to make the shift away from red diesel easier for the industry because it doesn’t have the same issues of filter blocking and reduced maintenance life.

Maclean believes in the environmental mantra of leaving a place unchanged when you move on, and he also believes that this principle can be applied to infrastructure projects.  When creating a piece of infrastructure, Maclean emphasizes the necessity of also leaving behind a sequestering habitat.  This places an importance on not only creating the piece of infrastructure, but also creating a habitat that is sustainable afterwards and offsets the emissions from the project.  This shift in the mindset of construction practices and planning is a big part of why Land & Water is leading the charge to cut carbon emissions in the UK.

Part of this shift in mindset requires both planning and practice.  Thinking more strategically about how projects are delivered involves challenging concepts such as design life against carbon life.  For example, Maclean notes a project Land & Water completed with a government agency where they were building flood defenses.  The project specifications called for a significant amount of cement stabilization.  Maclean and his team offered the client a much more sustainable solution that cost the same amount of money.  They proposed to air dry the necessary materials and place them over the course of two summers.  While this constituted a change in the project’s schedule, it ultimately saved 6,600 tonnes of carbon dioxide from being emitted during the construction process.  This focus on sustainability rather than the prevailing mindset of getting a project done as fast as possible, according to Maclean, is key to achieving sustainability and emissions goals moving forward.

Ultimately, the shift in mindset and practice needed to achieve these emissions goals must come from within the industry, and, as Maclean points out, many are starting to set goals ahead of the government.  With many in the industry committing to carbon neutrality by the year 2030, this mindset seems to be beginning to gain traction.  However, the reality of carbon neutrality is an industry-wide adoption of these new practices and mindsets, but that can only be achieved through further education and regulation.


Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.

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