Project carbon calculations are now crucial, says FIDIC president


As COP27 focuses on implementation, FIDIC president Tony Barry talks about how carbon accounting could dramatically improve outcomes.  

IG: As COP 27 focuses attention on practical climate actions and outcomes, are we making sufficient progress on meeting global and local ambitions for decarbonisation?

TB: “We are making progress, but not enough at this time. We are facing fairly extreme climatic events and increasing global temperatures and it appears that these events are becoming more severe and more frequent. We must be concerned that increasing climate volatility, scale and severity is causing increasing the social, environmental and economic losses.

“Our governments’ and our communities’ ability to handle these crises is increasingly being challenged. The impact on the financial resources of governments, insurers, businesses and the degradation of infrastructure and property assets are substantial. Communities impacted by drought, wildfires, floods, hurricanes and sea level rise are being left for many months without essential services and for some living in temporary accommodation for years. The social upheaval and grief suffered by those dealing with personal loss is largely ignored.

“It is apparent that we have not fully grasped how to build resilience into planning processes for new infrastructure and accommodation or how to retrofit existing infrastructure to deal with the challenges ahead.

“The energy transition is very slow, and in some cases not being addressed effectively.”

“It is very difficult to ask developing nations to leave their fossil fuel reserves untapped, when they have contributed very little to global warming” Tony Barry 

IG: Who or what are the key barriers or ‘blockers’ to faster climate action? 

TB: “Key barriers to faster climate action are many and complex. The energy transition is held up, among other things, because fossil fuel alternatives are not fully commercialised yet, because economic drivers for industry will not drive change until reliable base load power from renewables is cheaper than that from fossil fuels. This is further complicated by the fossil fuel incumbents, and governments whose tax revenue benefit from fossil fuels are not quick to change.

“There are many governments, businesses and people in our societies who are conflicted in making the changes necessary to achieve effective climate action. Many perceive that they will be put at risk, suffer reductions in wealth, incur unnecessary costs and interruptions to power supply.

“It is very difficult, for example, to ask developing nations to leave their fossil fuel reserves untapped, when they have contributed very little to global warming to date and see fossil fuels as providing royalties, tax revenues and jobs to support the country’s development ambitions.

“What is clear is that those economies who have developed and been the beneficiaries of fossil fuel usage, have generated most of the GHG’s in our atmosphere. When and how those developed countries take responsibility for the generation of GHG’s and mitigate their impact is a critical question.

“There is a very important role consulting engineers can play in advising clients on the energy transition, resilience in infrastructure and reducing GHG emissions.”

“we need to be able to access or develop CO2 generation and absorption data for different land use activities” Tony Barry

IG: How important is it that we establish comprehensive and trusted carbon calculation across every part of the infrastructure industry?

TB: “It is my personal view that carbon accounting for infrastructure is a critical step in addressing the GHG issue globally. As I see it, de-carbonisation is an ethical issue for engineers.

“From an engineering perspective, I believe we must reach a point where we have quantitative assessment of CO2 generation and absorption for buildings and infrastructure and be transparent with project stakeholders about it. In the early days, we may not have all the research to support rigorous objectivity in the analysis, but it will create pressure to drive more sustainable solutions, options and decisions.

“We have used GIS systems to map areas through which we might want to route, or on which we may wish to site an infrastructure project. The mapping enables us to describe land use in a granular way to establish the existing CO2 absorption or generation (or other attributes) of the activity on the land.

“Drone technology no doubt makes detailed mapping of vegetation and land use more efficient and effective.

“The way I see it, we need to be able to access or develop CO2 generation and absorption data for different land use activities. I have little idea as to the state of research in this area, but it is critical to being able to model land-use and project scenarios.

“I read a study from the US on the CO2 absorption of some tree species from immature to mature. As I see it, if one does not already exist, we will need to develop a global data base for different vegetation, plant or tree types, different species etc. This, potentially, could be researched through a number of PhD projects in different parts of the world.

“As a team develops various routing or siting options and digital twins are conceived / designed, it would be possible to quantify CO2 generated by the manufacture of materials and the construction activity. Similarly, CO2 generated from operations could be quantified.

“Using the base year position, we could then quantify the generation or absorption of CO2 on an annual basis over the life of the proposed project both under a “do nothing” scenario, and during construction and operation and in doing so produce a carbon balance sheet for the “do nothing” scenario and the proposed options for the project.

“A go/no go decision would then be made with the benefit of clear objective information.

“This could be done at the planning phase and a whole of life forecast approved through regulatory mechanisms. As the detailed design is developed the CO2 balance sheet is updated to confirm compliance with regulatory approvals. 

“The requirement to conform or better the CO2 balance sheet could be built into construction and operations contracts, with appropriate conditions and financial outcomes to encourage contractors and operators to beat the forecast CO2 balance sheet.”

IG: What is the single most significant action available to industry to achieve climate ambitions?

TB: “I am of the view that adopting carbon accounting for buildings and infrastructure from the planning stage right through the life cycle of a project will energise the industry, enabling us to focus of direct action to drive down carbon emissions. It will impact planning, options selection, investment, design, nature-based solutions, material selection and usage, construction and operation and lead us to a more sustainable future.

“It will also give us a platform from which we can authoritatively speak as to the role of infrastructure in delivering a better sustainable future for future generations.