Steve Henry, operations manager, SPIE UK, looks at how to make infrastructure more sustainable.

The issue of how we make our infrastructure more sustainable is a crucial challenge for the industry. With the launch in November 2020 of the UK government’s Ten Point Plan, the ambition is there at a policy level to build a greener national infrastructure to accelerate the country’s development towards net zero. However, as the recent floods in the UK, Germany and Belgium, and China’s Henan province have shown, the challenge is not just to build infrastructure more sustainably; we also need to build infrastructure that will adapt to the challenges of climate change. It is up to the industry to now implement the changes necessary to make the ambitions of the Ten Point Plan a reality and build infrastructure that enables sustainable living for years to come.

One of the main challenges is that, given the lifecycle of most pieces of infrastructure, it isn’t often that we are presented with a blank slate from which we can design and build the most sustainable piece of engineering possible. Instead, we have to think about how we upgrade and recycle existing infrastructure to cut carbon emissions and futureproof it. Improving lighting and signage is one way to put this into effect, as efficient lighting technology applied with centralised controls can decrease operating costs and emissions.

At the M8 Charing Cross underpass in Scotland, for example, smart LED lighting is used to automatically adjust the lighting levels in line with traffic levels, ensuring that energy is used as efficiently as possible. Other upgrades can be made too, such as to high voltage switchgear and low loss transformers, which will deliver further efficiency gains. This is the case at Kingsway Road tunnel that runs under the River Mersey in Liverpool, with a recent upgrade delivering an estimated reduction in energy costs of £10,223 annually and reducing CO2 expenditure by some 437 tonnes over the course of the switchgear’s lifetime.

As well as being more sustainable in and of itself, we can also use infrastructure to influence people into more sustainable behaviour. Many of us will have experienced this in recent months with the creation of infrastructure for active transport, with dedicated cycle lanes being built in many towns and cities. For inter-city roads, there are other ways to affect behaviour to reduce emissions, such as through the use of environmental speed cameras and limits. We have previously been involved in schemes where emissions sensors were deployed alongside speed cameras, with the speed limit being reduced from 70 miles-an-hour to 50. The impact was clear, with emissions levels and air quality improving along a major road network with benefits for the wider local area.

As we approach the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) there is a clear focus from government and industry to ensure that we do build back greener. As we progress towards the government’s 2050 net zero target, the fact is that many of the quick and easy fixes will soon prove to be ineffective, and bold change will be required. Through innovative thinking and the smart use of technology we can improve the efficiency of the systems in use across our infrastructure, integrate them with renewable energy sources, and build and maintain an infrastructure that is sustainable for today and the future.