When the government looked at setting climate change mitigation targets, it decided to use six greenhouse gases (GHG) as the metric.
The result was the Climate Change Act 2008's commitment to an 80 per cent reduction in GHG emissions by 2050, with a 34 per cent cut required by 2020 - both against 1990 levels. This might appear to be at odds with the engineering sector's focus on cutting carbon. So, is there an incompatibility between government and industrial goals?
Eighty-five per cent of emissions that need to be cut are carbon dioxide. The remaining reduction required in non-carbon gases is well under way, although some of these gases disproportionately damage the atmosphere. According to the Committee on Climate Change, the inclusion of non-carbon gases is partly because it is more likely that the UK will hit these targets.
The committee argues: "There are cost-effective opportunities to reduce non-carbon emissions. Where part of the accounting framework, they can be substituted for more expensive carbon emissions reduction, reducing the cost of meeting a given GHG target."
From a risk management perspective, including non-carbon emissions provides another way of making up potential shortfalls in carbon emissions reduction to meet a given GHG target. It is vital to look at what can be achieved, practically and in the time frame.
GHGs include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride. Non-carbon gases make up 15 per cent of GHG emissions. About half come from agriculture and a further quarter from waste management. Both sectors are on track to hit their targets.
From data for the reductions achieved from 1990 to 2006, it can be seen that non-carbon gases have fallen by 46 per cent, as opposed to six cent in carbon emissions. I believe that a holistic approach to GHGs is far less relevant than a focused carbon abatement strategy.
The way we design and construct infrastructure projects, and our efforts and innovation, will have the greatest effect on abating carbon emissions. The metrics for success will be exposed with no ambiguity and be apparent to all stakeholders.
Carbon can also serve as a proxy for GHGs in other sectors. The reduction of carbon emissions to meet the 2020 and 2050 targets will have an impact on all energy producers and users. This implies a radical transformation of the engineering and architectural solutions provided in the power industry, homes and communities, workplaces, transportation, farming, land management and waste, underpinned by early improvements in energy efficiency.
The engineering and construction sectors are best placed to become pathfinders for change, although a true multidisciplinary approach is required where all involved work alongside similar timescales. The targets and challenge are well understood. It is by focusing on carbon that we stand the best chance of achieving our goals.
Sir Peter Williams is chairman of the National Physical Laboratory and a non-executive director of Atkins.