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Engineering Net Zero in Transport - Mind over matter

With the increasing number of climate emergencies being declared by local authorities, and the Government’s vision for transport as outlined in the Road to Zero strategy and accompanying Transport Energy Model – what are the implications for local authorities in terms of the next 10 years?

Dr Wolfgang Schuster
09 March 2020


Achieving Net Zero will require the assimilation of cross-sector expertise and input from all stakeholders working on innovative solutions such as human-centred design and whole-lifecycle carbon quantification tools, underpinned by trust between individuals, industry and government.

The pathways to achieving our Net Zero and wider sustainability targets by 2050 are highly complex and difficult; not least because they run across an interlinked ecosystem of industries, government and consumers with potentially conflicting interests and strong industry-lobbying potential.

Initiatives, such as the government’s Future of Mobility: Urban Strategy outline the vision of incorporating the expansion of low carbon transport and its associated infrastructure into our national psyche. For transport, achieving Net Zero, represents a collaborative challenge across a complex stakeholder landscape.

There is a need to take a holistic approach and specific sectors (such as transportation) will need to engage across a much wider stakeholder landscape that includes sectors that in the past were not intrinsically linked to them, including energy supply, business, public, residential, agriculture, industrial process, land use and waste management stakeholders.

This will require a radical shift to a new type of regulatory framework capturing the whole lifecycle, and assessments which consider the complex interactions between mechanisms for achieving carbon-reduction, including nudging, technologies and infrastructure.

Carbon impacts will need to be calculated as will the impact of delivering the connectivity; policies will also need to be implemented at both a national and local level to ensure consistency of standards, operability and connectivity.

In response to these challenges, we will need to adopt three key approaches to support our thinking and the realisation of the Net Zero ambition.

Firstly, working across all stakeholders we will need to adopt a systems-thinking approach when creating Net Zero actions; bridging the gaps between customers, operations and infrastructure and between energy and transport industries spanning commercial agreements, integrated digital solutions, data exchange and quality assurance, as well as nudging approaches.

Secondly, we will need to undertake a series of complex, multi-topic impact assessments, to ensure that the right Net Zero actions are progressed. These should be enabled through the provision of policy, guidance and funding route advice to promote low carbon transport infrastructure and services. They should also support the identification of innovative solutions such as human-centred design and whole-lifecycle carbon quantification tools.

Thirdly, we will need to incorporate enablers such as master planning and programme management capabilities, to plan, design, track and manage the actual widespread project delivery and installation of Net Zero driving technologies, including around electric vehicle charging, train electrification and alternative fuelling stations.

There are two main considerations, and underlying challenges – the need to establish a set of clear cross strategies, and the need to assure the safety and security of transport.

Clear cross-sector strategies

We believe that to meet carbon reduction targets, gain public support and encourage innovation we need to consider the barriers that stifle optimum decision-making and create wastage

Today, the transport, infrastructure, manufacturing and energy industries are increasingly connected, integrated and low-carbon focussed, with many technical, operational and regulatory challenges.

Through collectively approaching the problem, and working with government and industry regulators, there is a need to focus on developing a set of clear, integrated cross-sector strategies underpinned by a systems-thinking approach to assure carbon reduction targets are met, whilst maintaining service quality to gain public support and without stifling innovation underpinned by a systems-thinking approach.

It is essential that these strategies reduce investment costs and emissions, and address inclusivity challenges. While Net Zero is based on an annual resource cost of 1-2% of GDP to 2050, budget cuts to sectors requires that strategies are evidence-based, reflecting the latest industry knowledge.

These strategies will need to be both holistic and supplier-agnostic as well as socio-centric, inclusive, accessible, equitable and trusted. To be successful they will also need to cover the governance, regulatory, implementation and socio-economic impacts from the onset.

The key to successful strategies will not only be at the level of the infrastructure and the technologies, it will fundamentally also be at the level of cultural shifts that will be required by industry and the public alike to adapt our modus operandi and capitalise on the benefits that new infrastructure and technologies can provide.

To ensure that these strategies are keeping up with innovation and research, they will need to incorporate multi-modal technology horizon scanning, including crucially for example digital connectivity and blockchain technology which will have a key role to play in reducing future energy demand (for example through optimised local energy generation and distribution), This will ensure that future trends and cross-sector impacts (such as the impact of decisions by airports on the road network) are captured in investment decisions.

Assuring the safety and security of transport

As we transition towards a mobility enhancing, multi-modal, integrated transport ecosystem; incorporating intelligent infrastructure, clean fuels, new technologies, connectivity and innovation, we face a key challenge around assuring the safety and security of transport

To address this challenge, we need to adopt a holistic approach to safety and security; developing clear guidelines and appropriate testing, approval and certification frameworks for transport infrastructure, the energy it consumes, and the vehicles that use it; putting the safety and security of users at its heart, especially as the transport system becomes increasingly part of the Critical National Infrastructure.

The systems and technology used in realising the Net Zero vision will need to incorporate safety-related operational systems for network-critical infrastructure, protecting systems from cyber breaches and providing back-up solutions (including for example organisational) and systems in the event of failure.

We will also need to develop plans to bring assurance synergies across the Net Zero landscape from actions on the Strategic Road Network, local road networks, connected and autonomous vehicles and mobility, electric vehicles, energy supply, and cyber environments.

These would also need to recognise the challenges, such as the impact of lack of noise from electric vehicles on safety and, the security of communication links between infrastructure and vehicles.

These steps will help to provide assurance that any strategy captures potential cost-benefit mismatches between stakeholders contributing towards transport safety and security exploiting proactive safety and security management approaches.

We need to understand and tackle these developments, setting out a broad-reaching approach to these issues of safety and security – underpinned by guidelines, testing, approvals, and rigorous certification.

Concluding thoughts

Achieving Net Zero is arguably the most complex challenge facing human kind. All parts of our socio-economic ecosystem will need to work seamlessly together

Our challenge is not only at the level of technologies, it is a system of systems type of challenge, which requires a re-think of our socio-economic model, a shift in culture be it at the level of consumerism by individuals, siloed corporate cultures or a shift from tactical to strategic longer-term politics. This is not only a cross-sector challenge but a cultural challenge making it one of the most complex challenges of human kind.

This is a challenge that requires early engagement and collaboration to generate trust between individuals, corporations and government, supported by an appropriate regulatory framework.

We need to look at the whole lifecycle of resources and assets. We need to look at the whole system of energy and carbon generation, energy supply, and energy demand and consumption - a holistic end-to-end approach is needed.

We need to think broadly: convene panels that represent experts, stakeholders and transport users. We need to collect data to inform intelligent decision-making and develop a holistic vision of what Net Zero looks like and use it as our blueprint for the entire lifecycle, including supply-chain and users.

We need to continue to horizon-scan for new technologies and socio-political trends, explore insurance, legal, governmental and regulatory frameworks that will underpin this change, and in every area map out a root-and-branch, dynamic action plan.

Net Zero is our collective challenge, and it is time to find common ground and work together.

Dr Wolfgang Schuster is Digital Advisory Technical Director and Netzero Strategy Lead in Atkins and will present on the challenges facing local authorities in delivering a Road to Zero strategy at the South West Highways Alliance Conference on 18 March in Swindon. 

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