Written by Professor Dame Athene Donald

Roadmap for a greener build?

In committing to substantial spending on building infrastructure, is Boris Johnson seriously and holistically thinking about decarbonising the economy, as well as levelling-up, at this critical juncture?

If Tony Blair’s mantra was ‘Education, education, education’, Boris Johnson is now taking the line of ‘Build, build, build’ to get us out of our current economic woes, channelling his inner Roosevelt (albeit at a fraction of the equivalent money). Indeed, it could be presumed that education is a long way down the Prime Minister’s list of priorities, given the rather shambolic approach in evidence in getting children back to school. This emphasis on building in Johnson’s Dudley speech, was followed up the next day with the BEIS Roadmap for Research and Development, also containing a substantial element of building through, as yet unnamed, infrastructural developments.

However, we should all worry about what is missing when building is talked about at this high level. It is vital that the Government is held to account, not just in miles of new concrete laid down for roads, or even hospitals, but that what is built does indeed fit the bill Johnson described as ‘build back greener’.  More concrete on the ground to facilitate transport may just take us back to a ‘business as usual’ position, with an unchanged expectation of miles travelled by (petrol) car and commuting practices. The promised 4000 zero carbon buses are good news, but which routes will they run on? Will they permit far more workers – key or otherwise – to get to work by bus? Or will they just get clogged up and slowed down because of the private cars on the road during rush hour? The very production of concrete, it should be noted, leads in itself to huge emissions.

It is easy to forget just how much the construction industry contributes to global emissions, quite apart from any emissions from the traffic running on new roads, or the air-conditioning and heating involved in servicing new buildings. Construction needs to be thought about much more holistically than with glib phrases about building if we are to achieve a green recovery from the pandemic. As a Guardian article from last year stated ‘If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world with up to 2.8bn tonnes’ amounting to around 8% of the world’s annual carbon dioxide emissions. It is energy intensive in production because of the high temperatures required, and reducing the emissions in manufacture has proved challenging, although a recent BEIS project is looking to move to zero-carbon fuel sources.

What about those zero carbon buses? How good will they be for greening a reviving economy as the pandemic recedes? The answer to that will depend on which routes they are deployed on. More is not better unless they are appropriately utilised. A fascinating study last year from The Open Data Institute (ODI) looked at the provision of bus services in Birmingham. Its purpose was to study the effect of agglomeration on productivity: the observation that bigger cities tend to be more productive. Or at least that’s true in France, Germany and the USA, but not – it turns out – in the UK. Birmingham is significantly less productive than cities of comparable size elsewhere, such as Lyon or Marseille, when it comes to their GDP per capita. Given the well-known UK productivity paradox, with the UK lagging behind comparable OECD countries in its productivity, driving up our productivity is crucial to full economic recovery.  One explanation, the authors of this study claim, at least when it comes to like-for-like city comparisons, is down to the lack of decent public transport systems in the UK.

If you have read Lynsey Hanley’s book Respectable, also about Birmingham, the lack of public transport will ring true. For Hanley, growing up on a Birmingham housing estate, the introduction of a bus service nearby transformed her family’s life for as long as the local council deemed such transport as a right not a luxury.  When it stopped, her mother became literally depressed.  As she writes, ‘mobility is fundamentally about class. …. when car ownership is out of reach, too many people are cut off from the everyday realities of modern life: that you have to go beyond your immediate neighbourhood for work, social contact and a diet that does not rely on takeaways.

It is the importance of buses for getting to work (at least if you don’t have the Tube to rely on, as Londoners do) that motivated the ODI Birmingham bus survey. Given the buses that Birmingham currently has, and the state of their roads in the rush hour, the population living within 30 minutes travel time by bus – a reasonable commute – of the city centre is only 0.9M, around half of the formally declared population of 1.9M. In other words, half of their citizens cannot get to a central place of work in a reasonable time by public transport unlike, say, Lyon which not only has 4 metro lines but a tram system with 100 stations. Birmingham has one tramline to supplement its buses. The ODI went on to model the impact on commuting if a network of trams was introduced. In their simulations, a new network would open up the city centre to almost the entire population of the city.

Being able to commute to work matters. Being able to commute on zero carbon buses would be even better.  As Johnson commits to all this new building, is he seriously and holistically thinking about decarbonising the economy, as well as levelling-up (much in evidence in his speech)? I worry that in his haste to demonstrate that he is spending and building, the consequences of what is being bought and built will not be fully thought through. Sound bites are insufficient at this critical juncture.

  • About the author

    Professor Dame Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics and Master of Churchill College

    Professor Dame Athene Donald is a Professor of Experimental Physics and Master of Churchill College. Her research is in the general field of soft matter and physics at the interface of biology; she has published over 250 papers in these fields. In recent years she ...   Learn more

    Professor Dame Athene Donald