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PAS 2080: Hitting the right net zero notes, time after time

June 21, 2023

By Adrian Johnson

Looking at decarbonisation from a ‘systems change’ perspective

Imagine you wanted to make a whole city resonate to the same sound for a moment. Every voice, phone alert, door closing, and moving vehicle would hit the same frequency at the same time. People would need to practice and train their voices. Some noises could perhaps be balanced with a counterpart. Others silenced. It would take an extraordinary act of collaboration and meticulous planning for one fun moment of collective harmony.

PAS 2080 recognises the benefits of systems thinking when pioneering the route to net zero.

Now imagine we adopted the same mindset to reduce carbon across the built environment. Every project, task, journey, asset owner, and the entire supply chain united in one common purpose. But we don’t just do it once. We keep doing it repeatedly—expanding the cause to every sector, geography, and organisation. It is a fiercely challenging concept. But it is one we need to make a reality at every scale and across borders to achieve our net zero ambition and live within planetary limits. We need nothing short of ‘systems change’.

PAS 2080 is a revised specification that sets out ways to achieve the kind of systems change needed. It was the world’s first specification for managing whole life carbon in infrastructure. It has now expanded to incorporate buildings and, thereby, the whole built environment. The specification and supporting guidance aim to speed up decarbonisation. The goal is to help reduce carbon and cost through more integrated and collaborative approaches to project definition, design, construction, and use. PAS 2080 paints the decarbonisation picture with the help of a range of practical case studies and worked examples.

The PAS (publicly available specification) targeted the carbon impacts that come from delivering and maintaining infrastructure. It was initially developed in 2016. It started a process for effective carbon management and delivering more sustainable solutions at lower cost. It also created a platform for innovation to thrive.

A cross-industry team worked together on the update. It was supported by a technical advisory panel, which I chaired. The update’s expanded scope now has a greater emphasis on whole life carbon. It also has a stronger alignment with the transition to a net zero carbon economy by 2050. Five key themes of the refreshed guidance are:

  1. An integrated approach to the built environment. It widens the scope to include buildings and not just infrastructure. In the past, carbon management in buildings and infrastructure was largely undertaken separately. There are differences in terminology, definitions, and standards. However, as buildings and infrastructure share common sources of carbon emissions—and are often interdependent—it is important we consider them together as part of a system. This helps us better align the way decarbonisation is managed.
  2. Systems thinking and net zero. Integrating the transition to net zero into the specification and applying systems thinking throughout. PAS 2080 recognises the benefits of systems thinking when pioneering the route to net zero. We need to start addressing decarbonisation through the context of an entire project or programme. And we need to include its surrounding network. No built environment asset can function in isolation. Its construction, operation, and use impacts and will be impacted by the networks and systems of which it is part.
  3. Taking a whole life view. We need to assess the full life cycle carbon impacts of capital investments. And we need to balance the capital carbon impacts of investment with operational and user benefits. Most of the built environment expected to exist in 2050 will already have been built and will have locked in high carbon behaviours. There is a huge need to make the most of what we have. We can do this by retrofitting existing buildings to achieve the outcomes we want for the lowest carbon impact.
  4. Nature-based solutions and resilience. Updating to reflect the value to both carbon reduction and resilience. There are many resilience benefits that come with merging nature into built environment projects. By harnessing the power of nature, we can better manage and restore ecosystems, support decarbonisation, help urban cooling, and boost flood protection. We can better adapt to climate change and aid people’s health and well-being at the same time.
  5. Working together. Highlighting the value of collaboration across the value chain. To fully realise our decarbonisation goals, we need a fully integrated value chain. This involves asset managers, designers, constructors, and product and material suppliers all working together with regulators and financiers. 

Any asset in the built environment is impacted by the networks and systems of which it is part.

What does PAS 2080 mean for industry?

The need to decarbonise our built environment is even more urgent now than when the specification was first published in 2016.

Achieving a ‘percentage reduction’ in carbon emissions from a ‘business-as-usual’ position is not good enough. Asset owners need to focus more on setting carbon budgets. These should be aligned to the net zero transition, with absolute carbon reduction targets for capital works. They then need to achieve these in collaboration with their value chain.

To help realise this, we need to work hard to ensure solutions deliver wider benefits. Those benefits include greater resilience and social value.

PAS 2080 explicitly sets out the need to think more in terms of whole systems. This is all about thinking beyond standard physical and financial project boundaries to consider the wider consequences of our actions.

For example, in improving wastewater treatment to remove nutrients (this can cause eutrophication of water bodies), we must also include the downstream carbon impacts of the increased sludge produced as a result. This is because treating more sludge could use more energy and chemicals, and it could produce more by-products.

Widening the boundary also helps us to explore ways to recover surplus resources and use them elsewhere. For example, excess heat from combined heat and power systems (powered by sludge biogas) can be used to heat greenhouses for horticulture.

We can extend the boundary of this example still further. How? We need to promote measures by water users in the upstream catchment in addition to those at the treatment works in a blended approach to improve water quality. Our analysis shows that these types of integrated approaches can have lower overall carbon emissions as well as other wider benefits.

The asset owner or manager should set the right ambition. This is something we support our clients in doing. For example, we are currently undertaking a PAS 2080 health check for one of our water clients and have been supporting another with its embodied carbon strategy.

We also work with clients to embed carbon management within their project delivery processes. This helps them to understand the carbon impacts of their investment decisions.

Typically, this involves integrating the tasks comprising a robust carbon management process into different stages of existing end-to-end delivery processes. This means setting baselines and targets, finding hotspots, and quantifying the whole life carbon of options. We ask carbon challenge questions at crucial gateways. We also monitor and report on all of this.

We apply challenge questions that follow the carbon reduction hierarchy. For example:

  • Avoiding new carbon emissions through reducing demand for new builds. This also includes incorporating more blue-green solutions and extending the life of existing assets within an adaptive planning approach.
  • Switching away from new carbon emissions by recovering and reusing materials, reviewing asset standards, or engaging with suppliers early to explore low-carbon products. This also includes adopting renewable energy in place of conventional sources.
  • Improving current practice by, for example, offsite manufacture to minimise energy and materials use. We also encourage the use of lower-carbon materials or deploying carbon-efficient construction plant and techniques.

By harnessing the power of Nature-based Solutions, we can better manage and restore ecosystems.

Critically, carbon needs to be included as a key factor on the decision-making scorecard alongside others such as performance, cost, and schedule. Some organisations are now making good progress in doing this.

We have also helped our clients to build up good data on the carbon emissions of past projects. This aligns projects of a similar type with common yardsticks to help them to develop more robust baseline information and learn for the future.

We are seeing more clients in water, but also in other markets, take steps to start transforming their business processes. This includes developing tools and training so they can practically tackle the carbon reduction challenge. Given the pace of change, organisations that do not embrace decarbonisation will be left behind.

Defining the note we strike for the future

Beethoven referred to the iconic opening four notes of his fifth symphony as the sound of ‘fate knocking on the door’. 

It’s a movement notoriously hard to deliver with perfect timing. But it is constantly remastered and enjoyed—many generations later. Now, fate requires this generation must be the one to alter behaviours and systems and stay within planetary limits, and whether we achieve it will define the note we strike for the future. PAS 2080 can bring us one step closer to harmony. 

  • Adrian Johnson

    As a civil engineer and executive technical director at Stantec, Adrian’s experience is primarily in the water sector. He specialises in sustainable development, climate change and carbon management.

    Contact Adrian
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