Transition to Carbon Net Zero in Manufacturing and Infrastructure: The Challenges and Impact

In 2019, the UK Government and devolved administrations committed to recommendations set by the Climate Change Committee to reach ‘net zero’ emissions by 2050.

Reaching net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions requires extensive change throughout the economy. Achieving a well-managed transition to net zero is beset with challenge.

Mitigating climate change and attaining net zero by 2050 requires major manufacturing and infrastructure decisions to be made.

On the eve of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), we explore the transition to carbon net zero in Britain, and the impact and challenges it inevitably bestows on manufacturing and infrastructure.

Manufacturing is no stranger to innovating to overcome persistent challenges. Like most industries, the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown up significant challenges for manufacturing, as has the country’s decision to leave the EU.

Commendable efforts to reduce carbon emissions in a sector that accounts for more than 60% of direct industrial emissions in the UK, have been significantly disrupted by the pandemic.

Forecasts suggest that UK manufacturers will not reach their predicted level of carbon neutrality growth mapped out before the pandemic until 2022. A predicted loss of Gross Valued Added (GVA) – which represents the monetary value of UK manufactured products – also looks set to drop by more than £35bn.

Given the unforeseen disruption of the global health crisis, which has widened the scale of the challenge to reach net zero by 2050, it is imperative manufacturers act now to future-proof their business.

Short-term pressures, including Covid-19 and Brexit, should not distract from thinking about where a manufacturing business is going in the forthcoming decades.

Implementing the necessary change, such as using machinery and equipment powered by potentially carbon-neutral electric motors and ones manufactured using high carbon-footprint aluminium and steel, are critical in the transition to net zero.

As well as coming with complex technical challenges, critical decarbonising steps come with significant costs.

For manufacturing businesses to successfully achieve net zero targets they must take practical and sustainable steps that are included in financial planning and budgets.

Comprehensive planning, having the right leaders on board, forming the right alliance and partnerships, and acting with urgency, are crucial in manufacturing’s transition to net zero.

In infrastructure, similarly bold steps need to be made if the sector to meet the net-zero target by 2050.

The built environment, namely urban planning, architecture, and civil engineering will require unprecedented transformation. The Committee on Climate Change, for example, predicts that some 29 million homes in Britain – equating to around one million a year – will have to be retrofitted in order to be compatible with the 2050 net zero target.

Regrettably, the gap is cavernous between Britain’s legally binding aims to a carbon neutral environment in 2050 and policy action.

A robust plan is needed, and one that is persistently updated to reflect inevitable changes in socioeconomic circumstances and technological development if infrastructure is to successfully transition to net zero.

Efforts should not be restricted to a national level. Responsibility and action need to take place locally, with cities and towns playing their own critical role in the national drive for net zero.

The Net Zero Infrastructure Industry Coalition, which was formed in 2019 in response to the UK Government’s 2050 net zero greenhouse gas emission commitment, has warned that national regulation on its own is “too blunt an instrument.” The Coalition is calling for stronger local decision-making if the UK is to meet its 2050 net zero carbon target.

The Coalition notes how local authorities currently do not have any power to directly influence the major emission that come from the infrastructure within the boundaries of cities.

The group calls for a greater role for city authorities and partnerships between cities and central government under a national net zero framework.

Only with the right leadership, partnerships, policies, and action can the UK’s manufacturing and infrastructure sectors play the pivotal and critical role that is required to support the national drive to reach net zero by 2050.