National Highways is focusing more on the environment than ever before with the launch of a dedicated environmental division, according to Stephen Elderkin, who was at the start of the year appointed as director of environmental sustainability at the organisation. Elderkin is well aware of the need for roads, but that they must sit within a wider environmental framework. “There is no question that roads are part of the future of the UK’s transport system and will continue to cater for the vast majority of passenger miles and freight movements. But what is really critical is that we are able to meet that demand in a sustainable way,” he told Autocar in an exclusive interview.
Elderkin heads up a team – that will grow to around 50 people – that is “aligning and coordinating the environmental work that is going on” within the business.
“One of the things that will be a measure of success will be National Highways seeing the environment as an integral part of our deliverables,” he added. “There has always been an importance placed on the environment and I don’t want to discredit the work that has been carried out historically, but I think this is a step on and up in terms of the resourcing and priority going forwards.”
Prior to taking on the new role, Elderkin – who has been driving an EV for three years - led the team that was responsible for the £1bn A12 upgrade scheme. Before he joined National Highways, he worked at the Department of Energy and Climate Change and Defra, with roles including leading the Government analysis for the Climate Change Act, carbon budgets and energy efficiency policies.
The creation of the team comes after National Highways – which receives five-yearly funding settlements from the central government – last summer released a report outlining a strategy to reduce emissions in the future. As part of the plan, it wants its own operational emissions (for instance, from road lighting, signage and its vehicle fleet) to be net-zero by 2030, road construction and maintenance to be net-zero a decade later, and for all road user emissions to be net-zero by 2050.
“Reducing our corporate footprint is challenging, but achievable and I think we can learn lots from others,” Elderkin said of the first deadline.
However, the other milestone dates may be harder to achieve. “Road user carbon is not something we can deliver alone – we need to be an active and collaborative contributor to get charging infrastructure right.”
“We need to trial and decide on the right technology for low-emission HGVs, and there’s a bit around government policy,” Elderkin said, referring to the ending of new petrol and diesel car sales by 2030.
“Also, there’s the improvement in technology, with battery prices coming down. Those economics will drive a rapid transition to EVs, so I think we might find the transition to zero road user emissions easier than you might first think.”
Elderkin, however, suggested eliminating emissions from the construction and maintenance of roads by 2040 is going to be the biggest challenge to overcome.
“We use a lot of materials – they need to be transported, but they also need to be mined. And quite a lot of them are energy intensive to produce with some of them releasing carbon dioxide as part of the chemical [production] process,” he said. “There are some real challenges in driving down construction and maintenance emissions.”
Surely the easiest approach – and one that is being taken by Wales – is to not build any more roads in the future? Elderkin dismissed this idea and said his team is going to take a more nuanced approach.
“We will implement a carbon management framework under the standard for managing carbon. It has a carbon reduction hierarchy. This includes ways in which we can deliver the value from infrastructure while building less,” he explained.
Elderkin also suggested greater use of technology could reduce the need to add extra lanes in some cases. “We have ambitious plans for digital roads; if they can increase capacity without building road surface it would be a win-win – cost-effective but it could also reduce material use,” he said.
“But the projections are that demand will increase on the roads, so we need to test ourselves about the best way of meeting that demand. That work needs to be done and we need to do that strategic research.”
Even if road-building is curtailed, Elderkin noted that maintenance will still need to take place. “If you’ve sunk a lot of carbon, energy and cost into creating a network, you’re going to want to operate and maintain it. So you’ve still got the same challenges to overcome in terms of construction and maintenance,” he said.
As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, many people are working from home more frequently than three years ago, theoretically reducing demand on the road network. Government data shows that as of 21 February, motor traffic levels were 10% lower than on a comparable day pre-pandemic – though with public transport ridership still not fully recovering, more people may opt to drive instead.
“The extent to which people return to using public transport is an open question and if they don’t, that could increase demand for roads. If people don’t return to public transport, it will put greater pressure on the road network,” Elderkin admitted, though he noted changing habits could reduce demand on the road network in the future.
“There are other changes arising from the pandemic that could depress demand – I’m talking to you from home; prior to the pandemic we possibly would have been in the same room as each other – so we need to look at things in the round,” he concluded.