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Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction

Transforming infrastructure through smarter information

June 2023

Owen Tarrant, Programme Manager, Net Zero Carbon for Infrastructure at the Environment Agency (EA), who recently achieved CHAMPION level of the Carbon Reduction Code for the Built Environment, argues that one of the foremost challenges of decarbonisation concerns cultural and behavioural change.

People who work at the Environment Agency are fully committed to decarbonisation. The objectives are set, the tools and processes are fast advancing. Yet the challenge to establish the biggest contributor to Defra’s carbon footprint firmly onto the path of drastic carbon reduction remains. As the impacts of climate change become increasingly acute, we are investing a record £5.2billion in flood and coastal risk management infrastructure that will help communities become more resilient to these impacts, e.g. the Programme of flood and coastal erosion risk management (FCERM) schemes and our National Strategy National Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy for England. With these record levels of investment comes the potential for increases in emissions. Balancing the need to adapt with the need to mitigate at pace is tricky.

We need to recognise the Net Zero challenge as a people challenge first and foremost, one that requires a change in attitude and thinking, and a fast change at that. The slightly daunting realisation was that we needed to achieve transformational behaviour change. Owen Tarrant, Programme Manager at Environment Agency

As my colleagues in the Flood and Coastal Risk Management Directorate and I looked to design a programme to support decarbonising the Agency’s assets and infrastructure, we really needed to understand the current barriers and blockers to reducing the carbon footprint of our construction, maintenance and operations. We spoke with our teams, delivery partners and their suppliers to understand the efforts being made.

We found the responses surprising. We expected to hear of issues with carbon data, unrealistic targets, lack of funding and undeveloped markets for new low-carbon technologies. Whilst these topics did indeed come up, the biggest gaps turned out to be around people, in particular skills, capacity, culture. Finding low carbon solutions requires knowledge, ingenuity, sometimes (at least initially) extra budget – but also quite a lot of bravery and the ability to take risks. Is it possible that the Agency’s risk-averse culture is the biggest, most impenetrable blocker obliterating our Net Zero horizon? And if so, what do we do to remove it?

The answer, as ever, is complex yet entirely logical. We need to recognise the Net Zero challenge as a people challenge first and foremost, one that requires a change in attitude and thinking, and a fast change at that. The slightly daunting realisation was that we needed to achieve transformational behaviour change.

Net Zero Carbon for Infrastructure (NZC4I) programme is built around six broad investment objectives, each with a specific list of projects and activities: so far, so much like any other enterprise-level corporate programme. The difference, and I hope a demonstration of our absolute commitment to the course, is that these six objectives follow the logic of the COM-B behavioural change model. Our team includes change managers and communications experts who work closely with the Agency’s brilliant technical teams. That way we ensure people are at the heart of all new processes, tools and approaches, making them feel supported and empowered to absorb the changes.

The challenge of decarbonisation in the Environment Agency runs side by side with its core mission to protect communities against the impacts of climate change. As noted above, the need for adaptation, coupled with the overall asset deterioration and growing costs has seen the size of the Agency’s capital programme double in the last four years. Dealing with the status quo is tough enough; finding low carbon solutions while responding to the increasing demand for protection from climate-change impacts requires us to be on top of our game, building the organisation’s capacity to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity.

So, how does this work in practice? As part of our ‘Carbon Roadmap’ project we are introducing improvements, in the form of a suite of tools, processes and specific roles, that will help make lower carbon choices throughout the asset and project lifecycles. Our area-specific carbon budgets, while using the familiar concept of financial management, should encourage the teams to reach the ‘holy grail’ of carbon reduction – bringing the carbon lens to the earliest stage in the project cycle, referred to in the latest PAS 2080 guidance as the ‘need’ stage. As with any innovation, it will take time and effort for it to be properly embedded. This is where professional change management comes into play, ensuring first and foremost that we have good two-way communication channels and that we adjust our approach in response to stakeholders’ feedback.

Our thriving capital programme is not, of course, limited to those early ‘need’ or ‘gateway zero’ decarbonisation opportunities. Early or advanced design stages, construction, operation and maintenance offer a low-carbon choice, provided there are people, teams and partners that are supported enough, and brave enough, to find those solutions. Our pilots and trials innovation programme had had some striking successes over the last three years. The Lydd Ranges Sea Defences scheme trialled Earth Friendly Concrete and the BasTech steel-free reinforcing bar: the new design reduced carbon by 73%. The challenge here is to replicate and scale up these individual success stories, seeing them through into ‘business as usual’ and moving the market to compete in this space, offering value for money alongside ‘value for carbon’. Our new Decarbonisation Technology Accelerator programme has been designed to achieve just that. It recognises knowledge management and building capacity and capability as one of the most powerful enablers for its objectives.

The Environment Agency is there to build our collective resilience to the impacts of climate change. And yet we are uncompromising about our role in mitigation, in protecting the future generations and the natural world from further disastrous temperature rise. Our ambition is to have an integrated, logical and comprehensive approach to decarbonisation across our assets and our organisation. Equally important for us is to tell a compelling story, leading our colleagues, partners, supply chain and wider community with us, one challenge at a time.

Read more:

Michie, S., van Stralen, M.M. & West, R. 'The behaviour change wheel: A new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions'. Implementation Sci 6, 42 (2011).

Manidaki, M., Pantelidou, H. 'UK PAS 2080 carbon management standard updated in response to net-zero challengeCivil Engineering Vol.175, Issue 2 (2022).  

CSIC News Story: The Environment Agency (EA) achieves CHAMPION level of the Carbon Reduction Code for the Built Environment.