Sam Sherwood-Hale spoke to Rachel Skinner, President of the Institution of Civil Engineers about carbon accountancy, achieving net zero and how engineers can take climate action running of the railway


Tell us about the Shaping Zero programme and how it relates to the rail industry.

‘Shaping Zero’ is my year-long theme as President of the Institution of Civil Engineers. It is all about climate action – and in particular, shining a spotlight on the need for new ways of working and thinking across all civil engineering sectors, including rail. Infrastructure is responsible for around 70 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions, both through the way we plan, design and build things and also because the infrastructure systems we’ve brought to life continue to enable and encourage carbonhungry behaviours every single day, across the world.

Those same carbon dioxide emissions drive climate change in today’s world. To me, it is obvious that we have to change – but I think that seizing this change brings hugely exciting opportunities to evolve what we do. For centuries, engineers have shared a common purpose to improve the lives of people around us, and this remains the same. What’s new is that we have to create new ways to do this without causing harm to the world around us, and ideally while putting right the harm of the past.


In headline terms, what do engineers have to do differently?

To get to a net zero balance by 2050, our first engineering task is to work much faster towards cutting carbon emissions; we must
halve 2020 emissions levels by 2030. We also have to build up our natural systems and technologies to process carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere at a much faster pace. In parallel, we have to recognise that we have at least 30 years of a worsening climate ahead of us, so our communities, places and infrastructure across all sectors will have to become far more resilient and adaptable to the change that lies ahead. We need to stop assuming that these are changes that affect other people far away and realise that the risk right here is rising.


It has been two years since the UK passed laws to end its contribution to global climate change by 2050, how do you feel we have done so far and what can those of us in the rail industry do better?

On the one hand, we can see progress and it is really positive that Covid has not knocked the UK’s climate commitments from the political agenda. The industry is full of ambition, intent and pledges – and those are important and set a framework but if I’m honest I’d say it’s much more important that we all just get on with making real change as fast as we can. Intention and promises won’t get us off the hook; real action is what we urgently need.

In my role as chair of the Infrastructure Client Group’s carbon workstream, I welcome the involvement of Network Rail, HS2 and East-West Rail amongst many others, as this is proof that major rail clients are actively engaged and coming together to act.

What can we do better? When it comes to net zero, step one is to find the carbon in everything we do, from the earliest concept design to the site practice, from everyday energy use to people’s behaviours encouraged by the rail network that could be nudged and decarbonised over time. Once we’ve found the carbon, step two is to cut it as far as we can for the whole life of that asset or system, perhaps by changing plans and designs to transform carbon impacts, specifying lower carbon materials or reviewing operational decisions for the long run. We then have to mitigate or offset the residual impact or we can’t claim to have achieved a net zero balance.

On resilience to onward climate change, rail systems are vulnerable to extreme weather events, natural disasters and a warming climate. We will find it uncomfortable living with the increased uncertainty, especially as some of these risks will be near-impossible to quantify, but asset owners, investors and the supply chain will have to find a way.


You interviewed experts from across multiple industries representing bodies from all over the world. How big a role does rail play in lowering emissions in the transport context and by extension how big is transport’s role in that same mission for the UK, and world, as a whole?

There is no path to net zero carbon for the UK by 2050 that doesn’t run through decarbonising transport, and a similar story is unfolding around much of the world. Transport currently generates around 30 per cent of UK carbon dioxide emissions and is a ‘sticky’ sector, meaning that it is hard to decarbonise, but all the modes will have to play their part and the balance of impacts will shift fast. It is interesting to look ahead: in 2021 the roads sector is responsible for the vast majority of the transport sector’s emissions due to petrol and diesel vehicles, but by the mid-to-late 2040s our vehicle fleets will be largely zero emission in use, and other sectors will have cut carbon emissions in the same window of time, so the rail sector cannot afford to stand still.

To me, the trick is to decouple the function from the form and operation of the rail network. It is in everyone’s interests to maintain and grow the function of the network – moving people and goods efficiently between key nodes and interchanges – from the form and operation of the network, which is where the carbon impacts need to be addressed. We already have 90-95 per cent of the infrastructure in place that will carry us to 2030 and beyond, so investment in our existing systems will be key.


What does carbon accountancy look like in the rail context?

I think we can expect to see major shifts in this space over the next handful of years, as we need to create ways of incentivising outcomes that prioritise fair, inclusive plans to deliver net zero carbon and improved climate resilience across all sectors including rail.

The launch of the Construction Playbook and Value Toolkit are helpful here, as they make it clear that we need to move from our current focus on short term cost and give far greater recognition to the multiplier effect of long run value.

There are tools and techniques already available to the rail sector to quantify carbon impacts but these will need to evolve to keep up with the latest thinking and data sources. We also need to remember that it is not just about construction stage impact but whole life thinking.


Are biofuels, such as hydrogen fuel cells or hydro-treated vegetable oil fuel the right way forward?

Just as we have a mix of energy systems in the 2020s, in my view we will move towards a lower – and in time net zero – carbon future by taking advantage of a range of rail-related technologies over time. Electrification feels like it should remain the primary solution for passenger and freight services, but we know that there are lines, particularly those challenged by long line lengths and specific geographies, where we might make good use of alternative solutions such as hydrogen or biofuels.

To me, the key is to gather some pace around an onward rolling programme for investment that can ‘bank’ significant and visible carbon reduction soon, as this will help to demonstrate real progress while also exploring the potential for new and niche decarbonised technologies in parallel.


Are innovations like solar panels or rainwater harvesting tanks enough to help turn train stations into sustainable buildings?

In short, they are a start and the inclusion of technologies such as these is a welcome step towards more sustainable design. We are fooling ourselves, however, if we think that these measures are sufficient to deliver a wholly sustainable rail system or to tick off a net zero carbon outcome.

We have to look across the traditional boundaries and think about how rail stations interact with people, with communities and their needs. We have to think not just about designing in sustainable measures but about the whole life sustainability of each physical and digital element of the railway system. There is room for huge creativity in this space, which I find energising and exciting.


You were just awarded a Fellowship by Society for the Environment – what does that type of recognition mean, and why is recognising actions in this space so important?

It was a surprise and a tremendous honour to receive my honorary fellowship. I have been overwhelmed by the reaction to my Shaping Zero rallying call, from people within the civil engineering community and far beyond. Their reactions seem to fall into two groups: some people are shocked and genuinely had not realised the wider impacts of what we all do; others seem hugely relieved, in their words, that ‘at last we’re going to talk about this!’ It is not possible to overstate the urgency of climate action.

It poses a genuinely existential threat to our future on this planet and it will directly affect the rest of our own lives as well as those of our children and grandchildren. Now that we have seen the problem, I sincerely hope that enough engineers are up for the challenge-of-our-lifetimes helping to solve the climate crisis or at least finding solutions that are good enough to buy us more time.