Removing the roadblocks to net zero transport


We need to mirror our response to COVID-19 and treat climate change as an equivalent threat. Decarbonising transport will require an unparalleled effort uniting industry, government and academia. Andy Sloan, Managing Director for COWI, and Emma Hopkins OBE, British Ambassador to Denmark at the British Embassy in Copenhagen write about the conclusions from a recent roundtable of UK and Danish industry leaders.

At a recent COP26 event in Glasgow, we convened a roundtable of UK industry leaders from across the transport, technology, energy, power and academia sectors, co-hosted by COWI; the British Ambassador to Denmark; and the Danish Ambassador to the United Kingdom– to discuss how we can collaboratively accelerate action and make net zero transport a reality. Inspired by lessons from Denmark, recently ranked the world’s greenest country, which were discussed at a prior roundtable as part of this series, it explored how decarbonisation can be achieved through smart regulations and unprecedented cross-sector and cross-market partnership.

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout was hailed as a template for how high-speed cross-sector innovation and collaboration could help the UK achieve net zero transport infrastructure.
In the same way that many countries accelerated vaccine rollouts in response to the COVID-19 crisis, industry leaders called for green transport solutions and projects to be fast-tracked in response to the climate crisis. Also called for, were new UK design standards and insurance policies to de-risk innovation in sustainable materials and accelerate speed to market for new infrastructure concepts.

Participants outlined why earlier regulatory involvement in supply chains – taking a ‘cradle to grave’ approach – could curb transport network emissions at the source and ensure sustainability targets are baked into procurement and production, incorporating the move from recycling to re-use of transport materials. It was agreed that cross-sector collaboration underpinned by common standards would create more cohesive infrastructure planning and ensure individual insights and innovations drive nationwide improvements.

With transport currently the largest greenhouse gas emitting sector in the UK, there is simply no time to waste in developing its infrastructure in a way that supports a low carbon economy. That fact, we would hope, is no longer up for debate. What is – is how we get there – and at speed. Following the conclusion of the roundtables run by COWI, the British Embassy in Copenhagen and the Danish Embassy in London, here are five steps that would accelerate the UK’s transition to carbon-neutral transport infrastructure.


The rapid rollout of vaccines and PPE across many countries demonstrated how cross-sector collaboration between industry, academia and government can bring innovations faster to market in a global emergency. Yet industry still often prioritises competition over cooperation on net zero as epitomised by the Humber’s industrial clusters working on rival zero-carbon plans north and south of the same river. Transport infrastructure project leaders called for more cross-sector knowledge sharing so that individual insights and innovations can instead be cross-fertilised to drive collective progress.

Denmark has shown how value chain consortiums collectively de-risk green projects for investors, accelerate mass production and drive ‘sector coupling’ where separate sectors share clean power sources. The UK should also look to Denmark’s 13 public-private climate partnerships as a model for how to break down silos and combine knowledge and resources across every branch of industry. Regional industry clusters and entire supply chains for planned large infrastructure projects could be joined up in pursuit of net zero goals.

Early-stage collaboration could see separate infrastructure holistically designed to intersect so that, for example, a planned hydrogen plant could be sited closer to HS2 to additionally drive diesel-free construction. Town planners should examine how new projects could drive decarbonisation in other sectors such as transport, creating joined-up ‘whole system’ infrastructure planning.


One of the hallmarks of the UK’s speedy vaccine rollout was fast, forward-thinking planning and procurement. In response to the climate crisis, we similarly need to streamline and speed up transport infrastructure planning and fast-track green projects to fruition. Yet many renewably powered infrastructure projects remain mired in sluggish planning processes. It was highlighted that an integrated energy park may take 15 years to get approved due to a lack of renewables expertise among regulators. Similarly, experts at the roundtable events estimated the UK will need 8-15 Carbon Capture and Storage projects to meet its net zero ambitions yet only two have been awarded government funding, despite several others meeting the criteria.

Accelerating approvals processes would decarbonise transport faster and enable infrastructure operators to ‘fail forward’ by innovating with new sustainable approaches at an earlier stage. Approvals time for green capital projects should be significantly reduced and the government definition of ‘key projects’ expanded to encompass a broader array of transport infrastructure.


We need early regulatory intervention to reduce reliance on unsustainable construction practices and materials such as steel and cement at source. Universal standards and targets would incentivise and inform cross-sector collaboration and provide a common foundation for green innovation. Standards and regulations for manufacturing phase emissions would provide a common baseline and a benchmark for best practice across transport infrastructure projects.

Project owners should set three-year midterm milestones towards net zero for all contractors and bring supply chains together to share the responsibility, fostering climate cooperation. One major UK rail infrastructure project leader explained how they helped reduce supply chain emissions by imposing a 50% carbon reduction target on all Tier 1 contractors.

Regulatory involvement earlier in the supply chain would similarly help ensure transport infrastructure emissions are reduced at source. The UK should look to create supply chain carbon certifications to foster collaborative carbon efficiency through cross-sector carbon trading. Crucially, streamlined design standards are required to help fast-track new transport infrastructure designs and materials to market.


Industry leaders noted how insurance policies deter small UK manufacturers from innovating with sustainable new raw materials and cause wasteful over-engineering of transport infrastructure. New raw materials are more expensive to insure because it is more difficult to predict the risk from novel materials with potentially unpredictable behaviours. Common design standards for new materials would help dramatically de-risk innovation and give companies the confidence to streamline designs and bring new materials to market without incurring liabilities.

The insurance industry should also develop smarter ways of insuring new materials to accelerate speed to market. Sensing technology could be incorporated in new materials so that they can be rapidly retrofitted to remove risks, like the ‘lean software development’ methodology where new innovations are polished in use. Ultimately, the UK must strike a better balance between safety and innovation.


Industry leaders outlined why recycling is an unsustainable model of sustainability for zero-emissions construction as it involves energy-intensive transport and processing. Instead, we need to design transport infrastructure for durability and re-use rather than recycling so that assets are created for second and third applications in the same life. This involves supply chain collaboration to ensure material components are created to be recombined into new applications at design stage, driving a circular economy.

More modular construction would also ensure individual components are made for replacement and re-use. One major UK infrastructure project is even reusing chalk slurry generated during tunnel construction to create a new grass and woodland ecosystem. Smart sensing technologies could go further and monitor construction materials across their lifecycle to prevent components deteriorating before re-use.


The response to the pandemic saw unprecedented cross-sector collaboration, regulatory innovation, accelerated procurement and proactive planning in response to a global crisis. With scientists warning the potential for catastrophic warming still hangs in the balance following COP26, we need to mirror our response to COVID-19 and treat climate change as an equivalent threat.

Decarbonising transport will require an unparalleled effort uniting industry, government and academia through common standards and regulations, cross-market partnerships, sector coupling and consortiums. We will need more innovation-friendly insurance and planning policies that favour experimentation and speed to market. Crucially, we will need to reimagine transport infrastructure as part of a cohesive ‘system of systems’ collaboratively designed around the same central goal of net zero.

By Andy Sloan, Managing Director for COWI, and Emma Hopkins OBE, British Ambassador to Denmark at the British Embassy in Copenhagen

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Lorna Wharton LOWH

Lorna Wharton Chart.PR MCIPR
Leading Specialist
Press and Public Affairs, United Kingdom and North America