Stuart McLaren, Director – Net Zero Infrastructure/Decarbonomics at Atkins, along with Ali Mowahed, Director, Stations and TOD at Atkins and Cara Murphy, Client Director – Network Rail (UK) at Atkins, explain what Decarbonomics is and what it means

Identifying carbon within existing network assets could be the key to reaching net zero faster, with new data-driven solution, Decarbonomics, from SNC-Lavalin, Atkins and Faithful+Gould. Meeting net zero targets is no small task, particularly in the current climate of escalating costs, budget squeezes and rising customer expectations. When we factor in the crippling effects of Covid-19 on rail use, the proportion of antiquated and near end-of-life assets across the network, and the complex operational interfaces required to integrate with numerous facilities, services and infrastructure, it’s clear the UK rail industry has one of the toughest challenges ahead.

Every organisation needs a net zero plan, and there’s increasing pressure from government, regulators and customers to be ever more ambitious with decarbonisation targets as we move towards 2050. To cut through the greenwash, interventions need to be realistic, effective, and ready to be rolled out imminently. The challenge is to identify the interventions that will give you the biggest ‘bang for your buck’; managing assets more effectively to reduce carbon emissions while representing good value for money.

The obvious starting point is to build greener, through more rigorous building standards, modern methods of construction and the use of low carbon materials to minimise embodied carbon in
new builds across the network. There’s no doubt this will go some way to reducing the massive carbon emissions associated with traditional construction, but it’s unlikely to be enough.

With more than 80 per cent of buildings that will exist in 2050 already built, perhaps we should instead turn our heads to existing assets as a more effectual route to net zero.

Unlocking potential
When it comes to existing assets, there’s a tendency – across all sectors – to resign ourselves to the fact that the building work is complete, accept it would be too difficult and costly to retrofit, and put up with the embodied carbon hangover left behind. This often means the only contribution these assets can make towards decarbonisation is through operational emissions savings where
possible (which can be tricky in inefficient old buildings) and ‘balancing the books’ through offsetting – the effectiveness of which is contentious, to say the least.

There are more than 2,500 regional railway stations in Great Britain, each of them with associated assets including buildings, platforms, parking facilities, lighting, telecommunications and security. Add in operational assets, such as control rooms, depots, train maintenance facilities and office space, and the sheer scale of what we’re dealing with starts to emerge.

Dated, carbon-heavy assets are often seen as a burden of ongoing maintenance and failure management, but perhaps when it comes to opportunities to clear our carbon debt, they are just the ticket. With all this inherent carbon comes potential to significantly neutralise it through a range of interventions, from minor changes that are easy to implement, like upgrading lightbulbs, to complex adaptations that futureproof a building by making it modular or replacement-ready; reducing its carbon footprint in the long term.

The flipside of a carbon surplus is the scope for change and more freedom to explore innovative opportunities. Alternative energy generation – even using an asset base to create its own energy through solar panels or the utilisation of excess heat generation, for example, has the potential to minimise – or even eliminate – the need to use traditional energy sources on site.

What if, instead of viewing our outdated assets as an inconvenient write off, it turned out this huge portfolio was in fact a unique opportunity to decarbonise on a massive scale, and significantly accelerate rail’s journey to net zero?

It’s this proposition that forms the basis of the new paradigm-shifting Decarbonomics solution, developed by SNC-Lavalin, Atkins and Faithful+Gould. By shining a light on the unlocked potential of existing assets, it’s clear – not least in the rail industry – that this is where we can effect real change.

What is Decarbonomics?
Decarbonomics is an end-to-end solution that transforms system thinking into a deployable service, and gives a complete picture of carbon across a full portfolio of assets. It creates delivery-optimised roadmaps, offers industry-leading asset management, and integrates Project Management Office (PMO) tools and processes through advanced visual interfaces.

By drawing on the wide range of capabilities across Atkins’ people, data and technology, Decarbonomics brings data to life and uncovers important technical and financial insights in a way that is easy to interpret. It uses advanced algorithms and dynamic dashboards to present opportunities for decarbonisation and demonstrate the impact of possible interventions.

Manipulating a wide range of in-house and open source data, Decarbonomics enables informed decision making, supports the prioritisation of investment and helps organisations reach net zero faster. It offers individualised interventions at site-level in the context of a complete portfolio, and employs a bespoke algorithm to finely tune a combination of measures that minimise risk, maximise value for money and optimise decarbonisation.

Only with improved carbon literacy, access to complex data and accurate carbon profiling – through tools such as Atkins’ Rail Carbon Tool and the Decarbonomics Carbon Data Insights platform – can we land on targeted, carbon-friendly adaptations and alternatives to deliver ambitious climate targets cost effectively. Decarbonomics makes carbon visible, enabling organisations to get a hold of exactly how much carbon is locked up in existing assets. It provides game-changing, data-driven tools to tackle that carbon in the best way possible, accelerating the journey to net zero – and optimising it along the way.

Decarbonomics is based on a simple three-step process:
1. Benchmark – Data from across the portfolio is captured, structured and managed to benchmark current performance and develop a tailored carbon baseline to act as a starting point, identifying carbon-intense assets and areas of focus that will make the biggest impact, quickly.
2. Roadmap – Carbon, cost and engineering solutions are analysed using advanced algorithms, industry-leading asset management tools, data digital twins and scenario modelling to create a bespoke roadmap employing the most cost-effective and pragmatic interventions.
3. Deliver – Measurable decarbonisation interventions are delivered, with real-time dashboard views of performance against the roadmap.


A new business as usual
An ageing portfolio undeniably means a significant proportion of station buildings on the network are at odds with a commitment across the industry to be driven by customer needs, and to put passengers first. Unfortunately, some buildings are at best uninviting, and at worst, antisocial – and the fact that fewer than ten per cent of regional rail stations are fully wheelchair accessible speaks for itself.

There’s a fervent drive for reform in the sector to facilitate comfortable and convenient rail travel for everyone, that provides an attractive alternative to private transport – something that’s critical for the economic stability of the network, and indeed for the global effort to quash emissions.

In upgrading facilities, capital expenditure should be seen as an investment not a cost and viewed on a whole life basis. Organisations should be actively pulling away from making investment decisions based on capital costs only. Within the context of rising carbon costs in the form of taxes and penalties, spending more might seem counterintuitive, but with the right support, business cases can be adapted, and indeed made stronger.

Through the data-driven modelling mobilised by Decarbonomics, various scenarios can be played out in order to demonstrate how, despite the growing cost of carbon, we can strike the fine balance needed to get the most out of investments and the best out of existing assets, for the long term.

This proactive approach to decarbonisation can help uncover hidden areas of carbon density, as well as unveil lean modifications and adaptations to re-use what’s already built to create greener, evolving assets designed for a circular economy.

The insights projected by Decarbonomics will make the journey to net zero easier to visualise and easier to justify in terms of investment and risk. By enabling us to identify and capitalise on
opportunities to decarbonise in the first place, and then to adapt interventions through ongoing monitoring of what works, and what doesn’t, Decarbonomics will set the route to long-term savings and optimised operations.

As we go forward, armed with robust data-driven approaches such as Decarbonomics, we’re reshaping business as usual, and moving towards a new, smarter and data driven era of development, where value for money is aligned with customer needs, carbon-neutral interventions – and ultimately, a net zero future.

Stuart McLaren, Director – Net Zero Infrastructure/Decarbonomics, Atkins

Ali Mowahed, Director, Stations and TOD, Atkins

Cara Murphy, Client Director – Network Rail (UK), Atkins