Time for data instead of yet more hot air

There is a huge data gap when it comes to the carbon cost of construction, according to Francis Newman of RapidDCS, who responds to the most recent report from the Climate Change Committee.

Francis Newman, pictured, of RapidDCS outlines huge data gap in carbon cost of construction.

‘Without data, you are just another person with an opinion,’ according to W. Edwards Deming, the famous statistician and engineer who is credited with starting the ‘quality revolution’ in American business. Good intentions are not enough, if you haven’t got the numbers, you are whistling in the wind.

Those words were brought to mind by the thud of the latest report to parliament from the Climate Change Committee (CCC) landing on my desk. Or pinging into the email inbox, at least. 

One way or the other the report, which analyses progress in reducing emissions, arrived with a bang in the RapidDCS office because it makes absolutely clear what we have been shouting about for some time: there is a huge data gap when it comes to the carbon cost of construction. 

The government is committing to net zero and yet we cannot in any rigorous way measure the carbon output from one of the most carbon intensive sectors in the UK economy. The implications are huge, not least for transport infrastructure at a time of major investment.

The CCC report makes it crystal clear: 'Availability of relevant data across this (construction) sector is particularly poor, and critically limits monitoring and evaluation and policy implementation. As such the government should review, invest in, and initiate reform of industrial decarbonisation data collection and annual reporting.'

I give that a qualified amen. The qualification is that it won’t be enough to collect and annually audit carbon data if we are not counting the right things. And right now we are not. 

The high-level cost-plans based on headline benchmark carbon rates for assets and products that most design teams are familiar with do not measure the true cost of carbon. The carbon embedded in component manufacture, transport, staffing and so on is often missing or inadequately accounted for. 

One steel beam is not like every other. The steel has been manufactured at a carbon cost that is hugely different depending on the energy source of the plant (coal or renewable). It was designed and made by people who themselves leave a carbon footprint that is greater or lesser depending on their local circumstances. It has travelled from near or far on carbon-light or carbon-heavy transport. We need to consider all of it.

Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of England and now UN Special Envoy for Climate Action & Finance alluded to the problem in his recent comments at the Davos Summit where he called for “clear, comparable and decision-useful climate disclosure”. Decision-useful is only achieved if the data reflects the actual carbon cost.

Carney’s words were spoken during discussions about the role of financial institutions in the drive towards net zero. 

In 2021 Carney launched GFANZ, the Global Financial Alliance for Net Zero, an alliance of financial institutions including every major bank in the world except two (in China) which he now co-chairs with Mike Bloomberg. 

GFANZ is committed to using its financial weight to raise the significance of carbon emissions in investment decisions, backing those clients that have ‘credible plans to transform their businesses for a net zero world’ and, by implication, withdrawing from those that do not.  

The near inevitability of mandated annual carbon audits called for in the latest CCC report combined with the softly spoken, but very real threat of disinvestment for businesses that do not get up to speed on emissions, should amount to a thousand-decibel wake-up call for the transport infrastructure sector to count carbon better. I hope it is heard. 

The tools are there to do what needs to be done, if we are willing to pick them up. If we want to leave a livable planet for our children, we have to make that happen. All the numbers on climate change are in the red; we can’t let things slide any longer.

The errors and omissions in how we count carbon are faults that we are building in, they are not raw facts of nature. We put them in, we can take them out. It only needs the will to do it, we already have the means. And if we don’t act now, that failure is going to cost dearly down the road. It’s time for facts not opinions. Data instead of yet more hot air.

Francis Newman is financial director at RapidDCS.

If you would like to contact Rob O’Connor about this, or any other story, please email roconnor@infrastructure-intelligence.com.