The built environment plays a critical role in advancing the climate agenda and so it is up to us, as professionals in the industry, to challenge ourselves and answer the call of necessity. Back in November 2020, the Government set out its ‘Ten Point Plan for Green Industrial Revolution’ – a plan that lays the foundations for the UK to become “cleaner, greener and more beautiful” as well as a global leader in green technologies and finance.
Construction will invariably play a key role in each of the ESG enablers under the Ten Point Plan. Further plans and strategies have been or shortly will be published that will set out how construction can support the UK’s decarbonisation efforts.
All of these plans and strategies will require a radical change in approach. The way we design and retrofit the UK building stock will need to be adapted to meet the various short-term targets (eg The RIBA 2025 and 2030 carbon reduction targets) but, as we found in our Net Zero carbon series, this is possible. However, meeting carbon reduction targets in the UK building stock won’t be easy, or cheap, and will require all-encompassing solutions.
Fortunately, the Government’s Ten Point Plan and Net Zero Strategy set out a delivery pathway that targets all sectors. They show there are a range of ways that net zero can be achieved in the UK but these reports do emphasise the importance of being adaptable over time. Innovations will improve our understanding of the challenges and new technologies will drive down costs but we shouldn’t underestimate the task - delivering the Ten Point Plan will require upgrading entire systems at huge costs.
Points 1 and 2: Advancing offshore wind and driving the growth of low carbon hydrogen
A 5GW target of “low hydrogen production capacity by 2030” is welcome and commendable, but the £240 million Net Zero Hydrogen Fund which will be used to help build hydrogen production facilities will be a drop in the ocean. Fortunately, the Government expects there to be up to £4 billion of private investment in this area to help build the necessary plants and distribution networks.
Both carbon capture, storage infrastructure and offshore wind will need to grow in tandem with the Government’s hydrogen strategy. Furthermore, decisions will need to be made by manufacturers about which type of hydrogen to produce, as ‘green’ hydrogen (the cleanest variety produced via electrolysis but at a significantly higher cost) requires different manufacturing equipment from ‘blue’ or ‘grey’ hydrogen (which are both made using fossil fuels and emit large volumes of CO2). This is something we plan to explore in more detail in our upcoming article, ‘Hydrogen: The Future Fuel for Net Zero Ambitions’.
Linked to hydrogen production is offshore wind. Most offshore windfarms envision generating electricity at the turbine which is then taken onshore via high voltage undersea cables. The electric power is then fed into large onshore electrolysers to make hydrogen. However, this is a rapidly evolving area and there are proposals for schemes that can make hydrogen in the wind turbine itself or at a platform located in the middle of the windfarm. Instead of electricity, hydrogen is fed onshore via a pipeline and then directly on to users or a repurposed gas grid for wider distribution.
Recent progress made on hydrogen-making wind turbines mean offshore developers are changing their plans because it tends to be much cheaper to transport hydrogen than it is to transport electricity. Although pilot schemes are testing the viability, there is a growing view that a large fraction of total hydrogen supply will come from offshore wind turbines. Again, this highlights the issue of technological developments making it difficult for developers/operators to decide what to build and where. Committing to invest heavily and build infrastructure using current technologies could mean investing twice in the longer term.
Point 3: Delivering new and advanced nuclear power
Providing a reliable source of low-carbon electricity, nuclear also plays a significant part in the Government’s Ten Point Plan and Net Zero Strategy. The Government is pursuing large-scale nuclear (setting out its intention to bring Sizewell C to a Final Investment Decision) but is also considering the next generation of nuclear technology – Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) and Advanced Modular Reactors (AMRs). Through its £385 million ‘Advanced Nuclear Fund’, the Government is providing funding for an SMR design – a domestic smaller-scale power plant technology design that can be built in a controlled factory setting and then assembled on site, module by module. Plans are also being progressed for an AMR demonstrator in the early 2030s which could unlock efficient production of hydrogen and synthetic fuels. This would also complement investments in carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS), hydrogen and offshore wind.
Reactor designer Rolls-Royce recently announced that a consortium of investors is raising money to build four SMRs projects. Based on the technology used in nuclear submarines, these reactors will be capable of generating around 470 megawatts of power, or three times as much as most existing submarine nuclear reactors. By way of comparison, Hinkley Point when built will deliver 3.2 gigawatts – enough to power six million homes. However, it is estimated that these SMRs will cost less than a tenth of the £20bn power stations at Hinkley and the anticipated sister plant at Sizewell (ie £2.2bn but dropping to £1.8bn for subsequent units).
Around 21% of the UK’s electricity comes from nuclear power and if these four SMRs become operational, their approximate two gigawatt power generating capacity will be enough to supply power to millions of homes. Their potential to be built off site in factories reduces both risk and cost, and although the locations of these SMRs have not been confirmed, industry experts suggest they are likely to be built on existing or former nuclear sites. Find out more in our article "The Nuclear Opportunity".
Points 4 and 5: Zero emission vehicles and green public transport, cycling and walking
Arguably the most critical piece of the EV puzzle is ensuring that the necessary infrastructure to support EV adoption is in place. A lack of convenient charging infrastructure is cited as one of the most significant deterrents for consumers when considering the purchase of an EV.
As discussed in our Electric Vehicle series, the grid will need to be completely overhauled to deliver the necessary power to deliver on the Government’s ambitions to transition to electric vehicles (ie point 4 of the Ten Point Plan). The SMMT estimates that in excess of £16 billion must be spent on getting UK’s public charging network ready for mass EV market, with 507 new charge points needed every day to 2035 to drive buyer confidence.
Ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2030 will, as the Ten Point Plan suggests, require the UK to build its own domestic EV supply chain. Doing so presents a huge industrial opportunity and the Government is patently keen to grab a slice of this. The Ten Point Plan commits a £2.8 billion support package to the sector and the Government expects to see significant returns. It states that accelerating the shift to zero emission vehicles could deliver support for 40,000 new jobs in 2030, £3 billion of private investment by 2026 and produce carbon savings of around 300 Mt CO2 e to 2050.
Another key factor that will help unlock the development of the EV sector is battery manufacturing capacity. It makes financial sense to build batteries close to car manufacturing plants. The UK has a big market to aim for, locally and in Europe, but if the UK is unsuccessful in building a UK battery industry, car assembly for new generation EVs may move to plants closer to the battery manufacturer. If this is in Europe, the UK could find itself building out a legacy of internal combustion engines. Our recent article explains how G&T is heavily involved in Britishvolt’s plans to build the UK’s first full cycle battery cell gigafactory. This is a project that will help prevent the UK from falling behind in the EV and battery manufacturing race and help the UK accelerate the shift to zero emission vehicles.
As well as decarbonising private vehicles, we must accelerate the transition to more active and sustainable transport by investing in rail and bus services, and in measures to help pedestrians and cyclists. Electrifying regional rail routes, installing the necessary charging infrastructure for the planned 4,000 zero emission busses and building safe and direct cycling and walking networks in every town will require significant investment.
Points 6 and 7: Jet Zero and Greener Buildings
The UK also wants to position itself at the forefront of aviation and maritime technology to push forward low carbon travel and build on UK strengths.
The Ten Point plan proposes a three-pronged approach to achieve green aviation: sustainable aviation fuel, R&D to develop zero emission aircraft and development of airport infrastructure.
G&T Partner Jason Fowler is chair of the British Aviation Group (BAG) – a group that works closely with the recently established ‘Jet Zero Council’ (JZC). With the aim of delivering zero emission transatlantic flight within a generation and driving innovations to cut aviation emissions, the JZC has a difficult task ahead. Its strategy will lean heavily on accelerating the development and adoption of new technologies for zero emission aircraft but supporting these developments will be significant infrastructure upgrades at UK airports. Building on our ‘The Future of Aviation’ article, we plan to explore the JZC’s plans and objectives and how it is working with other bodies such as the Hydrogen Advisory Council to accelerate progress on decarbonising aviation.
The construction industry has become far more engaged in building greener, more energy-efficient buildings in recent years. Considered thought and action leaders in the industry, G&T works closely with the global and national green building councils (GBCs) on next-generation sustainability issues and frameworks. We have also helped to deliver world-class sustainability projects, from BREEAM “Outstanding” and LEED “Platinum” buildings to more comprehensive “net-zero” developments.
G&T incorporates cutting-edge green technologies on many of its projects and aims to implement inclusive, economical and environmentally sound solutions. Using environmental effectiveness as our guide and performance as our mandate, we work closely with clients to implement their sustainability strategies. From our involvement in landmark projects such as EDGE London Bridge to our Mass Timber Office Forum that brought together panels of experts from across the industry to debate and discuss the barriers for using mass timber for commercial developments, we have a strong understanding of both the challenges and key success factors in making our buildings green. Our Sustainability Consultant Richard Francis will, in upcoming articles, outline how G&T is helping its clients design and construct buildings that use less energy, resources and materials, helping them to save carbon and reduce their energy requirements.
Points 8 and 9: Investing in carbon capture, usage and storage and protecting our natural environment
Carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) technologies capture CO2 from power generation, hydrogen production and industrial processes and store it deep underground where it cannot enter the atmosphere. Developing CCUS infrastructure that can store captured carbon under the seabed will, according to the Ten Point Plan, be done by establishing four industrial clusters in areas such as the North East, the Humber, North West, Scotland and Wales.
Aiming to develop four clusters by 2030, the Ten Point Plan suggests that these four sites (or ‘SuperPlaces’) will capture up to 10 Mt of CO2 per year. This is seen as a starting point for a new carbon capture industry, one that will grow at pace and scale with help from the £1 billion CCUS Infrastructure Fund and further private sector investment.
The support for CCUS stems from the recognition that ‘net zero’ targets cannot be met by reducing carbon emissions alone. Capturing, transporting and storing carbon will need to be done at scale. The Net Zero Strategy announced support of the HyNet and East Coast Cluster projects which, if progressed, would likely become operation by the mid-2020s. However, these major infrastructure projects will be a significant undertaking and carry with them substantial risks that will need to be managed carefully.
All of the priority areas outlined under the Ten Point Plan are ultimately about protecting the natural environment in one form or another. However, the specific focus of point 9 under the Plan is the preservation of nature. The natural environment is, according to the Ten Point Plan, “one of the most important and effective solutions we have for capturing and sequestering carbon long-term.” Construction has an important role to play here too. Sympathetic construction can help safeguard landscapes, restore habitats and combat biodiversity loss.
Point 10: Green Finance and innovation
Green finance is, quite simply, any structured financial activity that has been created to ensure better environmental outcomes. It includes loans, debt mechanisms and investments used to encourage the development of green projects or minimise the impact on the climate.
New sources of green finance are fundamental for further developing green technologies – the same technologies that will bring down the cost of transition to net zero. A record increase in public R&D investment and the £1 billion Net Zero Innovation Portfolio aim to accelerate the commercialisation of innovative low-carbon technologies, systems and processes. The power, buildings and industrial sectors will be the key beneficiaries from innovations such as Direct Air Capture (which captures carbon dioxide emissions directly from the air) and fusion energy technology (which enables low carbon and continuous power generation).
With the order book being 12 times oversubscribed, the UK’s first sovereign green bond package raised £10 billion and the second ‘Green Gilt’ raised a further £6 billion for green projects. The combined total will be used to finance projects like zero-emissions buses, offshore wind and schemes to decarbonise homes and buildings.
G&T Partner Mary Rose Griffiths published an article on green lending back in 2019 that introduced the concept and explained how it works, but G&T plans to publish further articles on green finance in light of the new Ten Point Plan, Net Zero Strategy and issuance of the first green bonds. These will explain the important role that private finance plays in the fight against climate change.
Hitting all the target milestones under each priority area of the Ten Point Plan and doing this in parallel with decarbonising our existing building stock will be a huge challenge. Although the Ten Point Plan and Net Zero Strategy is multi-faceted, it needs to be joined up and as such, industry collaboration will be key.
Targets are good, strategies are even better, but it will be clear and credible policies (supported by substantial funding) that will deliver net zero.
Ultimately, it is policy that changes behaviour so detailed policy frameworks will help both the private and public sector plan their strategies. The breadth of commitments contained in the Ten Point Plan and Net Zero Strategy have now been turned into a detailed Roadmap for the built environment. However, net zero is a long-term transition and neither the Government nor the construction sector can be expected to have all the answers today. New technologies and evolving behaviours will require a more flexible approach. Nonetheless, the clarity and direction provided by the Government so far is still useful, inasmuch as it marks a starting point and provides a foundation to build on. The UKGBC’s common vision of agreed actions for achieving net zero carbon in the construction sector by 2050 takes us another step further in executing our net zero transitional strategies.
 Eg the National Infrastructure Strategy, Transport Decarbonisation Plan, Industrial Decarbonisation Strategy, Heat & Buildings Strategy, Hydrogen Strategy and Nature Strategy
 Note: the target includes both ‘green’ and ‘blue hydrogen’
 Government bonds, or gilts, are sold to institutional investors and provide a fixed rate of return until their expiry