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Why supply chain engagement is crucial to meeting Net Zero

Credit: Alamy

Pete Baynham, Market Director, Highways

Pete Baynham, Market Director, Highways | Atkins

6 min read Partner content

To overcome environmental challenges we need to put collaboration at the forefront of the supply chain.

Ignoring the climate crisis isn’t an option; we have a duty to future generations to embrace change quickly. We are all custodians of the environment and have a collective responsibility to act. A challenge of this magnitude requires us to work together, collaboratively and as a community to innovate at pace and recognise that we all have a role to play -  designers, contractors, the extended supply chain, operators, SMEs and universities.

The recently published Net Zero Highways plan from Highways England echoes this sentiment. The Highways England plan highlights the ambition for delivering Net Zero construction and maintenance of the strategic road network (SRN) by 2040.

As a part of the plan, HE will launch a zero-carbon materials innovation programme and produce a strategy to support Net Zero procurement categories by the end of 2022. We should welcome this ambitious plan along with the collaborative intention of reaching an agreement with suppliers and contractors to decarbonise the SRN.

The collaboration will be essential. As I have seen throughout my career, no one organisation, community or sector, has a monopoly on good ideas and innovation. The same must also be true when it comes to realising our Net Zero ambitions.

I have witnessed, first-hand, the benefits of collaborating and engaging with partners early and the impact it can have on delivering better outcomes. It is no different in our Highways sector when it comes to our Net Zero challenge.

The benefits of early supply chain engagement

There are many benefits to engaging the supply chain early, but I would highlight two.

HE will not only need to understand the good ideas and innovation available from their supply chain and partners; they will also need to start specifying and encouraging the supply chain to do their bit. Decarbonisation will require incorporating requirements for future low carbon solutions, encouraging innovation amongst the supply chain, and making a real impact on projects across their lifecycles. Innovation can come in all sorts of forms. For example, what are the opportunities for importing specific low carbon material? Or, what are the best future access routes and capacity for vehicles? Or, what utility connections are needed for Electric Vehicles?

Secondly, early engagement with the supply chain will enable suppliers to establish accuracy improvements for the carbon data used in their assessments. How can designers and contractors fully understand what the true carbon footprint of delivering a project is; if they do not have access to accurate information from the relevant supply chain partner? Supply chain partners have in-depth knowledge of products and materials, and as designers, we can make better use of it. Better decisions always result from having accurate and current data.

What’s in the data

Our designs cannot be designs in isolation – we must link them to constructability and operations. Earlier engagement with contractors and builders will help in understanding what is feasible. The intelligence from the people on the ground is imperative if we’re going to make low carbon design work.

Another challenge we face is inconsistency in data and the data structures. For example, collecting as-built data and feeding that back into design models. Incentivising data sharing across the supply chain in a structured and agreed format will result in better outcomes. Too often on projects, assumptions are made, but are they right? And does anyone know what the true carbon impact is?

There is a risk that our as-built emissions could be higher than our assumptions – so we must use data to estimate them to the best of our ability. Once we know what the expected emissions are, even if they’re higher than anticipated, we can develop baselines, from which we can take action, prioritise the right areas and develop robust positions as we move forward.  

From Designers to contractors to SMEs

Net Zero is a whole industry issue, many of us are passionate about it, and we all own part of the solution. To reduce emissions, everyone must buy into the challenge. We need to channel the enthusiasm; agree on the data standards and the data we’re collecting, and then decide how to use it to make better decisions and drive the outcomes we desire.

To match the pace needed to achieve Net Zero, we must engage with SMEs, academic institutions and wider research organisations who can innovate at pace.

One thing that drives early involvement is clients and how they procure and incentivise their commercial models. We’ve seen this to great effect with the Regional Development Programme for Highways England. We are working in a highly collaborative environment with our partner Balfour Beatty and Highways England, where our outcomes are aligned.

SMEs are a further important consideration. SMEs are places where innovation and new ideas thrive. To match the pace needed to achieve Net Zero, we must engage with SMEs, academic institutions and wider research organisations who can innovate at pace. Large organisations on their own will not be as agile. So, when we talk about early engagement of the supply chain, it needs to include all who can contribute.    

Moving forward, at pace

As with digital transformation, resources and skills will be a constraint to deliver our carbon neutral vision. The Net Zero agenda is moving quicker than we can create and educate carbon and sustainability experts. As with the digital transformation we are currently seeing in the sector, the focus on Net Zero has driven supply chains to create numerous tools and innovations. Each organisation is developing new ways of working but, agreeing on a consistent approach, could accelerate development. Possibly even adopting the use of open standards, as we have seen in other sectors such as telecoms, to drive the carbon reduction process across the industry at a pace.

We talk about the cost, quality and time triangle, but with more and earlier supply chain engagement, could we see this develop to a “square”: time, cost, quality and carbon? We need to ensure we work in a way where we understand the decisions and, where solutions sit in that square in relation to their impact on carbon. To meet the HE plan, as part of developing a 2040 zero-carbon road map for concrete, asphalt and steel, we will also need to review all of the materials in use across the SRN. This may result in higher cost but lower carbon solutions, but we need to have that debate. The dialogue will also need to span the transport, infrastructure and energy sectors. If we work together collaboratively, we can understand the impact of our planning and design decisions on all four areas.

Ultimately decisions need to be based on the whole life carbon benefits rather than the short-term gains. For example, you can choose tarmac for a road that is more intense on carbon in the short term but drastically reduces the rolling resistance of wheels to lower car emissions over the next 15 years. Carbon emissions are much lower overall than the embodied carbon of the material.

More collaboration with the supply chain and other partners has to be the right approach to meet our significant challenge. Surely whole-life carbon impact needs to be prioritised urgently along with our traditional metrics of time, cost and quality.

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