Why we need a map to make the journey to net zero

When navigating net zero, a spatial science map can make it easier to make the journey, says Atkins’s Elspeth McIntyre.

Picture a network of moving pieces, each of them part of several smaller interconnected networks. Each of those pieces has a carbon footprint and influences the carbon footprint of the other players too. At times, the behaviours and connections within the network change and so do the footprints. That’s a human environment. Devilishly complex both to measure and manage. 

Net zero as a goal unites city managers, energy engineers, environment experts and many more disciplines. But to work with such complex networks, they need to use spatial science as a unifying method to reach that goal. 

Atkins is currently working on a number of spatial-centric net zero projects across the UK. 

In Glasgow, the central innovation district - managed by the University of Strathclyde and Glasgow City Council in conjunction with a network of partners - is using this spatial approach to identify interconnections between assets which either exist in the same place or are used by the same people and therefore have mutual influence. Presenting results in a WebGIS has allowed for an interactive exploration of different assets in conjunction, backed up by data management through Atkins’ Spatial Common Data Environment. 

This has sparked numerous ideas for net zero opportunities, as well as identifying clear challenge areas where change will need particularly imaginative solutions. For example, did you know that Glasgow has a network of Victorian (and earlier) culverted watercourses running directly underneath the city centre and emptying to the Clyde? They’re large enough to walk down, and a potential source of energy to buildings which are close by. But you’d never know it unless you used a spatial approach.

Further south, as part of the Leiston net zero project, which saw a route to net zero developed for the village in East Suffolk, Atkins took a spatial approach to calculating baselines and modelling the route to net zero. In this village context, there was arguably a lower degree of complication in the underlying system, however the spatial approach again allowed for consideration of all possibilities. 

Open land carbon values were added to the building footprints, sourced from both measured values, such as energy performance certificates. A spatial analysis was then conducted to determine transport emissions and suitability on a per-property basis for alternative energy, such as heat-from-sewage. Again, all of these carbon demands and solutions were laid out on one interactive WebGIS, building up a complete picture of the project.

Spatial approaches to net zero need to be utilised on more projects, to allow for the real ‘net’ to be considered; a balanced calculation of all assets, with ‘fixable’ challenges compensating for currently resolute obstacles. There are far more techniques geospatial professionals have in their back pocket. 

In the last year, the Atkins geospatial team has employed machine learning for biodiversity net gain, utilised mobile data tracking to gain a detailed insight of travel patterns, calculated electric vehicle potential uptake based on socioeconomic and commuting behaviours and even determined energy regeneration from train braking. In each case, locational data proved the key.

If project managers and decision makers don’t use location as a commonality between diverse assets, then they risk missing the connections between them and failing to deliver solutions which are easily available. So, let’s put net zero on the map.

Elspeth McIntyre is a senior GIS consultant at Atkins.