Decisions about every piece of highway maintenance in the UK are now factors in the UK government’s self-imposed target of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
The National Audit Office, in a report published last December, called this ambition a ‘colossal challenge’, pointing to piecemeal funding as a factor inhibiting the longer-term planning local government needs to hit such hard targets. The reality on the ground is that few authorities have the resources to maintain every carriageway and footway in good condition, and many struggle to plan for the full lifecycle of their assets. Making highways departments responsible for saving the planet adds huge pressure, it might seem.
New planning techniques include provision for longer-term emissions targets
There is no cause for pessimism, however. The latest lifecycle planning models and techniques allow local authorities to plan the whole lifecycle of their highways assets much more quickly and to expand their parameters to include variables like carbon emissions and climate change impacts. With access to the right data and expertise in-house, they can run different scenarios which help them explore every aspect of their budgets. That includes the outcomes they can expect from their current budget and the resources they need to drive higher performance levels.
This is highly relevant as there is likely to be a new question in the Local Highways Maintenance Incentive Fund to help ensure that local authorities are considering climate factors in their highway maintenance activities. We are at the point where climate change data needs to be fed into lifecycle models, rapidly generating results which can be used to inform decisions by elected members. Even when the approach is more costly, the scenario that sees a lower carbon output for the council from its highways operations should certainly be considered for selection.
All too frequently, however, local authorities use cheap low carbon options. These may save money over the course of a year, but may not be cost-effective if they require annual renewal across three decades, emitting more carbon than if the council had kept the original treatments. There may be initially higher carbon output, but less maintenance and therefore output less carbon over the longer term.
Highways lifecycle planning and short-term/long-term balance
Highways lifecycle planning solutions allow councils to use provider information to make their own decisions on whether opting for the low carbon option today is actually the most environmentally-friendly approach. There is a balance to be struck, but in a climate crisis it needs to be skewed to the longer-term, even if the electoral cycle means councillors may look for short-term wins. A highways department needs to be giving more serious thought to the entire highways lifecycle.
Whatever the precise life-span of each carriageway or footway asset, local authorities need a best practice methodology for gauging the carbon emissions of roads which they can fold into their planning. The data from large contractors who are commissioned to go out and lay the tarmac should be part of this. This includes information about temperatures and CO2 emissions and specifications around different treatments. Given the right quality of data, officers can assign a carbon or nitrous oxide (NOx) output from the treatment and add it into the model.
Accurate scenarios that include emissions data
This approach remains in its infancy and most councils are currently concentrating on discovering their baseline. The focus is on budget and performance in most lifecycle planning, but we would expect to see that change in the coming years, as carbon target pressures increase. This will deliver more insight and by extension, give councils more options. They will be able to understand what the budget should be if they want a certain level of carbon emission. Authorities will have the choice of reducing carbon at higher cost, for example or of sticking with their existing carbon output and flatlining their expenditure.
The key is for departments to be able to run different scenarios and then put the information in front of their senior decision-makers, safe in the knowledge that they are giving them all the detailed options available before the final decision.
Evidence-based decision-making in a tough climate
When budgets are very tight, as governments reassess spending priorities, but maintenance demands increase, authorities need the capability to input a range of data sources, including climate change goals, as they draft highways strategies. 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 tough decisions. This will not only enable them to minimise costs and increase efficiency at a time of stretched resources, it will also help prepare to help achieve very demanding climate change targets.
Emily See is senior consultant infrastructure asset management at Yotta