The lower carbon future demands better highways lifecycle planning

  • 2nd November 2021 at 6:30PM
  • Written by Emily See, senior consultant, Infrastructure Asset Management, Yotta
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The pressure for action on climate change in the public sector means carbon and greenhouse gas emissions are increasingly serious considerations when local authorities make decisions about highway maintenance. Few authorities have sufficient budget to maintain all their carriageways and footways in good condition, and many struggle to plan the full lifecycle of their assets. The latest lifecycle planning models and techniques are changing this, however.

 

Today, solutions are available that allow local authorities to plan the whole lifecycle of their highways assets more quickly. If they have the right data and expertise available in-house, they can run different scenarios which help them find out everything from the performance levels they can expect from their current budget to the budget needed to drive higher performance levels. Councils are now expanding the parameters and starting to bring variables like carbon emissions and climate change into the mix.

In a sense, these considerations are a complicating factor that make decisions even harder – but these are nevertheless issues that no council can afford to ignore. That’s due in part to growing public concern about climate change but there is also likely to be a new question included in the Local Highways Maintenance Incentive Fund to help ensure that local authorities are considering this issue in their highway maintenance activities.

Climate change data increasingly needs to be fed into the lifecycle models, therefore, and results which can be used to inform councillor decisions, quickly generated. Even when the approach is more expensive, the scenario that sees a lower carbon output for the council from its highways operations should certainly be considered for selection.

 

Too often today, though local authorities are still using cheap low carbon options, which may save them money in the short-term. But if such options only last a year, and they have to implement a new one every year for the next 30 years, it will cost the council more over the long-term and it will output more carbon than if the council stuck with the original treatments. These may be higher carbon output at the start, but require less maintenance and therefore output less carbon over the longer term.

By adding carbon emissions as a factor for consideration in highways lifecycle planning, providers can help councils run lifecycle scenarios which allow councils to make their own mind up over whether opting for the low carbon option today is actually the most environmentally-friendly approach ‘further down the road’.

This is, therefore, a balance between long and short term goals, but ultimately too, it is a balance that needs to be skewed to the longer-term. Some councillors may be on the look out for short-term wins, of course.  But a highways department needs to be giving more serious thought to the entire highways lifecycle which may be much longer.

Whatever the precise lifecycle, local authorities need a best practice way of gauging the carbon emissions of roads, and using it in their planning processes. Typically today, local authorities work with large contractors who are commissioned to go out and effectively lay the tarmac. As they are doing that, they are collecting information about temperatures and CO2 emissions from the scheme – and they will have specifications around different treatments. They can then assign a carbon or nitrous oxide (NOx) output from the treatment and put it into the model.

This approach remains in its infancy and most councils are currently just looking to discover their baseline but the pressure to include such factors in lifecycle planning looks certain to increase over time.

 

Currently, budget and performance are the only factors most lifecycle planning considers but we would expect to see that change in the coming years. This will deliver more insight and more choice to councils. They will be able to understand what the budget is, and will need to be if they want a certain level of carbon.  That will give councils the choice of reducing carbon but paying more to do so, for example or, sticking with their existing carbon output and paying what they are paying already.

From a solution providers’ point of view, the key is giving councils the ability to run different scenarios and then put the information in front of their senior decision-makers, safe in the knowledge that they are able to say to them: Look it is your choice but we are giving you all the options available before you make a decision.

When budgets are cut, but the maintenance demands increase, authorities need the capability to input a range of data sources, including climate change goals, as they draw up strategies for highways assets. With the ability to see how different levels of investment affect the condition of specific assets over three-to-five years, and longer if required, authorities have far better evidence on which to base difficult decisions. This will not only enable them to minimise costs and increase efficiency at a time of stretched resources, it will also help prepare for a lower-carbon future.

 

You can find out more about how Yotta can help councils assess carbon emissions and assist with lifecycle planning that takes these emissions into account by exploring our capabilities here. We are also a Gold Sponsor of Highways UK and will be exhibiting at stand H60, where you can come and see Horizons in action. You can get free tickets to the Highways UK on the 3rd and 4th of November here.