Carbon copy

Atkins | 17 Jan 2010 | Comments

What does it take to change the world? Motivation, political influence and clout, and most important of all, a consensus that change is not only a good idea, but absolutely essential.

Published ahead of the COP15 Climate Change Conference in December 2009, the Copenhagen Communiqué is a definitive statement from more than 700 of the world’s leading businesses, including General Electric, Nike, Rolls Royce, Unilever and Atkins.

There’s a clear consensus across global boardrooms: long term economic development will not be sustained unless the climate is stabilised. The Copenhagen Communiqué calls for an ambitious and equitable deal on climate change.

Cutting emissions means learning to kick the global carbon habit and that’s proving to be far tougher than anyone thought. In the UK, for instance, the proportion of energy obtained from renewables in 1995 was one per cent. By 2008, that had risen to just 1.8 per cent. In the meantime, the world continued to guzzle oil at the rate of 180,000 litres a second.

Getting results takes political muscle. And the UK is further ahead than most in this respect, with a range of legally binding measures intended to cut emissions and, it is hoped, kick-start a low carbon economy. These include the Climate Change Act, the Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC) and changes to the Building Regulations, due in 2010 and intended to boost the energy efficiency of buildings by 25 per cent.

There’s now a clearer political vision of what a low carbon economy could look like. Lord Mandelson, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills, outlined the scale of the challenge in a recent address to the Royal Academy of Engineering: “The low carbon transition… makes the next generation of British engineers and scientists potentially among the most important in its history. We face the unique challenge of engineering at scale – we need to produce not some low carbon vehicles and homes, but millions of low carbon vehicles and homes, and a new low carbon infrastructure and the thousands of engineers that will be required to make them a reality. It is our capacity to engineer and build on this massive scale that defines the modern challenge.”

Delivering the practical detail of a low carbon economy is a job for industry rather than policymakers. Atkins is playing a leadership role in that delivery. It proposes a raft of measures that embraces everything from the tools needed to measure carbon to a vision of what needs to be done and where on a macro scale.

Making it happen

The scale of the task is huge, but so too are the opportunities. Atkins has created a Low Carbon Economy Roadmap, highlighting four key de-carbonisation priorities: buildings, transport, power and industry. It identifies some 50 specific carbon reduction targets within those four sectors. Atkins has also implemented a Carbon Critical Design philosophy across the organisation, underpinning its efforts to contribute to a low carbon economy.

“The primary objective of Carbon Critical Design is to reduce consumption of fossil fuels by making carbon a significant, if not the primary, design determinant,” explains Tony Iles, associate director of water and environment with Atkins. “It was a case of going back to basics and understanding what we can do as professional engineers to play our part in bringing about change. It means looking at things in a new way, and that means looking at the whole life costs of carbon.”

Carbon Critical Design goes beyond the drawing board, with a cradle-to-grave analysis of carbon in the broadest possible context.

“Traditionally, the focus has been on technical compliance at lowest cost, without taking too much account of how much it would cost to run an asset, such as a building or railway,” explains Iles. “But once you take carbon as your primary design determinant, you can then compare the amount of carbon you’re investing up front against the amount of carbon you intend to use during the operational life of the asset.”

Critically, this approach draws a distinction between the carbon “invested” in construction (embedded carbon) and the carbon needed to run the asset during its life (operational carbon, mostly fuel).

Case in point: the design of a new railway route. Trains run most efficiently on a straight and level alignment. Building the ideal alignment might require a significant front-end carbon investment to dig cuttings and create embankments, but carbon spent today is energy saved tomorrow.

“We now have legally binding carbon budgets in the UK for the period up to 2022 (Carbon Budget Order 2009) and, in the spring of 2010, we expect the government to describe how these carbon budgets will be allocated across the UK economy,” says Iles. “As a consequence of the leadership Atkins has taken on carbon, we think we will be in an excellent position to help our clients understand and meet these budgets without significant, negative financial impact.

“Whole life costs of carbon, carbon accounting and carbon footprinting (ie the total amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions for which an individual or organisation is responsible) are only tools. They help organisations measure their carbon output, so they can make a clear judgement on how they want to spend their carbon.”

Sir Peter Williams, chairman of the National Physical Laboratory and a non-executive director of Atkins, is clear on the importance of this approach: “There is a great deal we can do to abate CO2 emissions through the way we design and construct infrastructure projects. The concentration of our efforts and innovation here will have the greatest effect.”

He emphasises that the huge reductions in CO2 emissions needed to meet the targets set out in the UK Climate Change Act will have a significant impact on both energy producers and users across all sectors. The transformation required is radical.

“I would argue that the engineering and construction sectors are in fact best placed to become pathfinders for change, although no single discipline possesses a ‘silver bullet’,” he says.

One of the biggest challenges faced by the construction industry has been the struggle to keep up with fast changing regulations over the last decade. This is particularly true of those relating to the energy performance of buildings.

But times are changing: the pace of innovation in building design and engineering means the sector is now leading rather than following.

“What we need now are more low carbon-ready buildings,” points out Keith Clarke, Atkins chief executive. “You can equate this thought to the advent of HD-ready televisions. When everyone knew high definition television was coming, how many people still bought old style units? Some people still did as they were cheaper, but in reality they knew they were buying something that would soon be radically out of date.”

He stresses that the same is true with low carbon-ready buildings. These will have to be designed and engineered for ease of integration with technologies that will emerge with the evolution of a low carbon economy.

“The potential for the client is the flexibility to be able to cut their building’s operational carbon output on an ongoing basis,” stresses Clarke. “For many clients, the idea of a low carbon building is already financially appealing. It will increasingly become so as carbon becomes even more of a commercial commodity.”

Change on the ground

With the legally binding Carbon Reduction Commitment on the horizon – and the threat of penalties for non-compliance – businesses are adapting rapidly to the need for low carbon solutions. But getting the low carbon message across to the public at large, where misinformation and misunderstandings abound, is more of a challenge.

“A low carbon economy is one where we understand the numbers that relate to carbon,” says Julian Sutherland, Atkins director for sustainable infrastructure development. “Ninety-nine per cent of people aren’t familiar with the numbers. But if you show them a picture of a hot air balloon and explain that that’s what 10 tonnes of CO2 looks like, then you’re getting somewhere.”

Engineers have always used mathematical approaches to understand the real world, from the point at which a steel beam will bend, to the crushing strength of a brick. The ability to make calculations about the energy and carbon embodied in materials is extending that understanding.

“It’s about making sense of the numbers,” concludes Sutherland. “Carbon is a very good metric for showing resource efficiency. A low carbon economy is a low resource consumption economy. That’s really what this is all about: achieving more with less.”

Best behaviour

Public buildings are a major source of CO2 emissions and schools are among the biggest culprits; in England, they’re responsible for generating more than 8.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. Curbing these emissions and the high energy bills that go with them is a priority for local authorities.

Atkins set about tackling this problem as part of an energy management contract with Oxfordshire County Council. Sandhills Community Primary School was one of 60 schools targeted by Atkins under its School Energy Education Project. The school’s energy bills were unacceptably high, despite the fact the building was new and designed with energy efficiency in mind.

“Part of the challenge is that schools are seen as communal buildings, so there’s no one person who feels responsible for energy use,” notes Wendy Cheeseman, Atkins senior client consultant.

Atkins’ solution for Sandhills and the other 59 schools in the scheme was a year-long programme of behavioural change. This included regular school visits by an Atkins consultant, a programme of activities linked to the curriculum, the creation of pupil energy teams and audits of school buildings by caretakers and pupils.

Specific energy saving measures included turning off lights and computer monitors during breaks, removing obstructions from radiators and keeping blinds open to make better use of natural light: “Some of it was about dispelling myths,” says Cheeseman. “It’s surprising how many people won’t turn off fluorescent lights because they think it takes more energy to turn them on again.”

Atkins’ award-winning scheme has played a decisive part in cutting energy bills at the schools. Oxfordshire’s 60 participating schools saved an average of 15 per cent once they’d been through the programme.

“Today’s four and five-year-olds are going to be consumers for the next 75 years,” says Cheeseman. “It makes sense to start teaching them to save energy now.”

Download PDF