Access to carbon data central to ’net zero’ infrastructure sector

Out-Law News | 24 May 2021 | 11:39 am | 3 min. read

A lack of access to good quality data on how much carbon is emitted in building and operating infrastructure is an impediment to the UK meeting its climate change targets, according to a coalition of organisations that promotes actions aimed at delivering ‘net-zero’ greenhouse gas emissions in the country by 2050.

In a new report, the Net Zero Infrastructure Industry Coalition (NZIIC), of which Pinsent Masons, the law firm is a member, said that knowledge of the level of carbon emissions produced by UK infrastructure is incomplete at the moment “because of a shortage of publicly available data”. It also identified a lack of a consistent method across the infrastructure sector for measuring projects’ carbon impact, and said that this leads to “unreliable assessment and forecasting capability” and ultimately could undermine the setting of the UK’s carbon budget and sector-specific targets for reducing emissions.

The NZIIC said access to good carbon data “is essential in understanding how to plan, design, deliver, and operate infrastructure”.

“Without understanding carbon within a project it is not possible to assess climate impact, and furthermore, we cannot understand the cumulative impact of all projects,” the coalition said in its report, ‘Is our carbon wallet empty? The embodied carbon of the national infrastructure pipeline’.

“This project has found significant issues with data availability, quality, and transparency across sectors that needs remedying from both top-down and bottom-up… You can’t manage and reduce what you can’t measure.”

Simon Colvin of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, who specialises in contracts concerning the confluence of infrastructure and technology, said: “As ever the perennial challenge is not necessarily the collection of carbon-performance related data, but in its interpretation. As with other data rich assets they key is having standards and protocols for the recording and interpreting of the data. Only by collecting and reporting on data using a common language, standards and protocols will comparisons of emissions be meaningful and enable progress to net zero to be assessed at both project and sector levels.”

The NZIIC’s report set out a series of recommendations aimed at delivering “urgent support and guidance, from the top-down and from the bottom-up” to address the data shortfall.

Included within the recommendations was a call for industry to standardise how carbon emission factors across construction products and building materials are considered. The NZIIC also called for measurable targets towards ‘net zero’ to be set within the infrastructure sector, for owners of infrastructure assets to be responsible for preparing “carbon neutral outline designs … prior to planning and tender”, and for carbon data to be made available to ensure environmental impact assessments under the planning framework can be accurately completed.

Colvin Simon

Simon Colvin

Partner, Head of Technology, Media and Telecoms

Only by collecting and reporting on data using a common language, standards and protocols will comparisons of emissions be meaningful and enable progress to net zero to be assessed at both project and sector levels

Anne-Marie Friel of Pinsent Masons, who specialises in helping organisations in the infrastructure sector address climate risk, said that thought could be given to establishing so-called data trusts to encourage the sharing of carbon data and facilitate stakeholders’ access to that information.

“We need good data management and good data sharing practices to be industrialised across the sector, and quickly, if we are to meet our net zero targets,” Friel said. “It can be difficult to know where to start, but having a data strategy in place at organisation and project level is vital. Think in advance about how you will implement the strategy, recognising the need to be compliant with regulation, to include appropriate data provisions in your contracts and, most of all, to encourage collaboration through good data sharing.”

In its recent response to a consultation it held on its national data strategy, the UK government said it will use data to support industry’s transition to net zero.

It said: “The industrial decarbonisation strategy, for example, sets out a concrete plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the industrial sector, which need to fall by at least 90% compared to today’s levels to achieve our 2050 net zero target. The strategy underlines the importance of collecting and using data to identify and address inefficiencies within industrial processes and systems, determine the carbon embodied within industrial products, and increase the reuse of secondary materials to minimise waste.”

“Government and Ofgem are also working together to develop an energy data and digitalisation strategy, which will set out clear actions that government, industry and the energy sector must take to ensure that the data management systems underpinning smart energy systems remain fit for purpose in a net zero world,” it said.

The NZIIC report was a point of discussion at an event hosted by Pinsent Masons earlier this month, which was one of a number of webinars in a series focused on the 'path to net zero' which Pinsent Masons is hosting in the run up to COP26 in Glasgow later this year. Guest speakers at the event included Chris Hayes, sustainability operations director at construction company Skanska who led the NZIIC’s report, and Will Jenkins, who is a director at the consultancy Carbon Intelligence.