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Last edited 14 Feb 2021
How a focus on carbon can drive innovation benefits
|Atkins' focus on carbon in the electrification of the railway between Glasgow and Edinburgh led to great innovation.|
What is of interest is what the focus on carbon can do, not just for moving us towards a zero-carbon future, but how it can change our approach to problems, reinvigorate innovation and help find new ways of working.
Three examples below demonstrate where a carbon focus has led to not only more sustainable outcomes, but to widespread innovation.
 At Atkins
Atkins has been involved in carbon reduction on infrastructure and building projects throughout its existence, and has been driven to deliver efficient projects, which in turn drive carbon reduction.
Focusing on more specific carbon management, as far back as 2006, the author has been involved in creating carbon calculation tools to inform design development. These original Excel tools served the purpose of raising awareness of carbon issues on a project. However, like all Excel tools, they do not allow for fast, accurate testing of options and that is their major Achilles heel.
Using the firm's database expertise, it became very evident that a central software tool would enable much more effective calculation and assessment of project options to identify those that have the best carbon performance.
In 2008, Keith Clarke, Atkins' CEO at the time, applied his vision for carbon and sustainability on infrastructure projects to support developing just such a tool which led to the creation of the firm's Carbon Knowledgebase. It is still used today as industry-leading best practice and has been deployed as the Rail Carbon Tool.
Atkins' carbon management expertise and its Carbon Knowledgebase tool enables it to help its clients understand and better manage carbon on their projects, ranging from using the Carbon Knowledgebase to providing strategic insight to programme directors. This leads to the development of carbon strategies, to direct application of the Carbon Knowledge at a detailed design level.
One of the strongest case studies seen for a carbon focus leading to innovation is through the firm's work on the Edinburgh to Glasgow Improvement Programme.
As part of this, it ran a carbon workshop for the client to identify alternative low-carbon solutions for their project. This started out by focusing solely on the hot spots shown in the Carbon Knowledgebase and alternative, lower carbon design options.
However, Atkins was able to go significantly beyond this. With the whole project team present, as each option was identified, it was able to identify the other parallel benefits related to the separate disciplines, eg a change in design enables an alternative product to be used, which leads to quicker, cheaper, safer construction, less site neighbour disturbance, etc.
As each low-carbon idea was put forward, the other team members would identify the benefits of that idea related to their discipline or function. The firm maintained this approach throughout the workshop, to the extent that it established an extensive specification of carbon-reduction opportunities, but also a significantly larger, solution-specific sustainability agenda.
Beyond both the carbon reduction and sustainability agenda development, this single workshop also led to a reinvigoration of innovation in the team.
The team started the day looking at carbon and an instruction to use innovation to drive identification of ideas. This was fully accomplished, but it was reinvigoration of innovation that was recognised as the lasting output.
The overriding conclusion is that carbon models are crucial to informing low-carbon design development, but it is passionate application of engineering and construction innovation combined with an enlightened client that are the real prerequisites and facilitators for achieving carbon reduction.
 Within industry
At an industry level, the focus on carbon has created new standards like the PAS 2080 Carbon Management in Infrastructure technical standard. Carbon reduction has also been incorporated into wider innovation schemes, like the Infrastructure Industry Innovation Platform (i3P), in which the author leads a workstream looking at Optimising and Challenging Design for Better Carbon Outcomes.
The first involvement in this workstream was to identify promising low-carbon solutions.
However, it became apparent that what was being faced would not be solved through individual engineering solutions.
Rather, the much larger issue to resolve is how carbon is managed across a project lifecycle, from its initial inception to all the stages going forwards and the tendering and procurement processes between them.
The author progressed the workstream scope to focus on creating a framework for full project lifecycle carbon management. From this, many different low-carbon solutions will be identified and implemented, while also delivering the wider sustainability benefits, including cost reduction.
The interesting conclusions from these three examples and the firm's associated expertise are that they show that carbon is ‘just another thing’ we can look at to improve project performance. That is not to say that we should not be giving it more focus – we really must give it more focus.
Moreover, there is a stronger case for carbon reduction when we realise that it is not just about improving sustainability, but about driving overall efficiency and innovation. It is a win/win.
 About this article
This article was written by uk Jon Casey, Principal Consultant, Atkins. It was previously published on the ICE website in August 2019 under the title 'Can a focus on carbon drive innovation?' and can be accessed HERE.
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- Carbon plan.
- Climate Change Act.
- Climate change science.
- Climate change.
- Emission rates.
- Energy targets.
- Happold lecture on climate change.
- Helping achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.
- ICE articles on Designing Buildings Wiki.
- Institution of Civil Engineers.
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC.
- Kyoto Protocol.
- PAS 2080.
- National Infrastructure Commission.
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- The Future of Electricity in Domestic Buildings.
- UK decarbonisation.
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