Sir John Armitt is the chair of the National Infrastructure Commission. He was awarded a CBE for his services to the rail industry in 2007 and a knighthood in 2012 in recognition of his role as chair of the Olympic Delivery Authority. He is a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Institution of Civil Engineers.
- Sir John Armitt on the role of the National Infrastructure Commission: “We don’t start with a view; we go out and it’s an evidence-based process and understanding what all the drivers are of infrastructure change and what’s affecting it and then coming up, ideally, with an rational analysis of that and some recommendations.”
- On energy efficiency: “The building stock that we have in this country…represents 80% of what we will have in 2050. So, making our existing building stock more efficient, consuming less energy and containing energy is going to be a major challenge.”
- On the political will for decarbonisation: “I believe that ministers are up for that and they would like to do it.”
- On fracking: “Shale gas is still going to produce carbon emissions so it’s not a long term solution.”
- On the role of infrastructure in tackling climate change: “There is a challenge there for engineers to say: ‘Well, can we use different materials which can be less dependent on carbon to manufacture?’”
- On banning petrol vehicles: “I think just saying, ‘oh, we are going to ban all electric [sic petrol] and diesel vehicles by 2040,’ is probably a pretty draconian step and not the ideal way to go.”
- On a third runway at Heathrow airport: “We believe, particularly in aviation traffic and the increase of aviation traffic, it would be unrealistic to assume that we can see a reduction in air travel.”
- On electric planes: “My personal view has always been one of which, if we can imagine something, then sooner or later we will do it.”
- On HS2: “In terms of climate change, then I think it has to be beneficial, which is why rail tends to be well supported by environmentalists, because on balance, it’s a clean way of travel.”
- On nuclear: “We don’t have to be as dependent on a nuclear solution as maybe we thought we needed to be 10 years ago.”
- On what first alerted him to climate change: “For somebody of my generation, the first time that this started to become pushed in front of us was actually through the activities of organisations like Greenpeace.”
- On climate action: “You can argue that, rather than try and shift the politicians, if you can actually shift public opinion, then the political will will follow. That’s the very nature of politics.”
- On reaching net-zero: “We have to do it. We absolutely have to do it, if we are going to – it’s very an emotional tag – save the planet.”
- On the 2023 infrastructure assessment: “I would hope to see progress on hydrogen. I would hope us to be in better position to be able to firm up on our recommendations about being able to be 80%-plus dependent on renewables by 2050, as opposed to 40%.”
Carbon Brief: First of all, do you mind explaining what you view to be the role of the National Infrastructure Commission and how your role as chair fits into that?
Sir John Armitt: The purpose of the National Infrastructure Commission is to look at the infrastructure needs of the UK, 25 to 30 years ahead, to discuss those needs and look at what is required, given that the purpose of the infrastructure is to ensure that the UK remains competitive, grows its economy and develops infrastructure which is sustainable – and develops infrastructure that is going to meet Britain’s obligations to climate change agreements that it’s entered into. Essentially, it’s looking at getting as close as we can get to to net-zero by 2050. We have to take those factors into account. We look at transport, energy, waste, digital and flood control. We’re required to produce that analysis every five years. The government is obligated to respond to our recommendations, so we don’t make decisions, we only make recommendations. The government has six to 12 months from the time that we give them our reports to respond as to whether they accept or don’t accept the recommendations that we are making. We have eight commissioners, who are spread across a variety of different disciplines, including engineers, economists and architects.
My role as the chair is simply to be the chair of the commission and probably spend more time than some of the other commissioners on representing the commission. We have about 40 staff normally. We do a lot of the analysis and then we use external organisations, such as consulting engineers, economic organisations, and so on, to give us the data – because all our evidence, essentially, is developed bottom up. So, we don’t start with a view; we go out and it’s an evidence-based process and understanding what all the drivers are of infrastructure change and what’s affecting it, and then coming up, ideally, with an rational analysis of that and some recommendations.
CB: OK, great. So, the first infrastructure assessment is very far-reaching – it goes from energy efficiency right through to flood defenses. For you, what is the most crucial recommendation, in terms of meeting the UK’s climate goals, from that set?
JA: Well, in the longer term, I suppose it’s in terms of meeting those emission controls. One is the move to electric vehicles, so getting our vehicle fleet off being hydrocarbon-based and to electric vehicles. And our recommendation there is that people won’t move to EVs if the charging network isn’t in place. So our key recommendation to the government is more about the charging network than it is about the vehicles. The vehicles will come from the manufacturers, but people won’t buy them if they’re not confident about their ability to have a series of locations where they can charge it.
When it comes to energy, then we see a future of renewables. We see the need for energy efficiency, which has proven very difficult. The building stock that we have in this country – what we have today represents 80% of, probably, of what we will have in 2050. So, making our existing building stock more efficient, consuming less energy and containing energy is going to be a major challenge. We’ve tried to do that in the past. The initiatives have not been particularly successful. People don’t like spending money on their homes, if they are going to sell them in seven or 10 years time. Are they going to get their money back with the savings they make? So, that’s a big challenge, how do you make homes more efficient?
The other big challenge is heat. So, how do we replace what, largely in the UK, is natural gas, what are the alternatives? Our analysis at the moment would tell us that two alternatives are hydrogen or heat pumps. Particularly, hydrogen as a technology is not sufficiently developed at the moment. So, there we are saying to the government: “Government, you’ve got to support some real research and development to see whether hydrogen first can be transported safely, can be used in homes and factories safely.” And, secondly, we need to understand how we are going to produce it, which we think is probably through carbon capture and storage. That’s not a technology which at the moment is being economically developed. So we believe we would go through a lot of work in the next five to seven years to come to some conclusions on that because if it doesn’t work, then it’s going to be heat pumps and it’s going to be electricity, which is going to increase electricity demand and so on. So those are the big challenges in reducing emissions.
CB: The report describes the shift to green energy as a golden opportunity for ministers. Do you think that ministers are listening to that message and taking action?
JA: I think that ministers would like to take action. There’s always the issue of affordability. We’ve always had the trilemma of making sure that we’re producing our energy in a sustainable and green way. But we have energy security at the same time and it’s something which the public sees as being an affordable cost to them – and balancing those three has always been a trilemma, as we’ve traditionally called it. That hasn’t gone away. We think, though, that there are opportunities, when you look at the plummeting prices, for example, in offshore wind auctions. You are down to £45 a kilowatt and continuing, probably, to come down [In the latest auction, two offshore windfarms won contracts at £57.50 per megawatt hour (MWh). If an auction were opened to onshore wind, it is expected to come in closer to £45/MWh]. We see a real opportunity for costs to come down.
I think, therefore, I believe that ministers are up for that and they would like to do it. They’re always conscious, at the same time, of the public reaction to energy costs. The public are very sensitive to energy costs. “Oh, why have the energy costs gone up again? My bill has gone up.” At the moment, of course, very often it is because the worldwide price of gas has increased. So the energy companies’ price goes up because they’re buying the gas at a more expensive rate. So, if we can get away from gas and we can get into renewables, then we have far more chance of controlling the costs.
CB: What more do you think could be done just looking at the very immediate future? And, also, if there is little action, are there any actions that the commission can take to try and push forward ministers’ action on climate issues?
JA: I think the commission is not a decision-making body. It is a recommending body. But, clearly, one of the tasks that we have as a commission is to maintain the awareness of our recommendations. So we have, if you like, a PR task to get out and educate everybody about the opportunities; to inform the public, to inform politicians, to inform business and to create a ground swelling of support and interest. That’s how I think this commission can help to make these changes take place quicker.
I think the interesting thing here is that we’ve seen the speed of change in technology in recent years and I don’t think there’s any reason to suppose that’s going to slow down. The key player in all of this is the regulator because the regulator sits between, in a sense, industry, particularly where its privatised in producing energy, and the consumer. The pressure on the regulator has always been to keep costs down. The counter to that, of course, is perhaps they don’t invest as much as they should. We’ve just been asked by the government to do a piece of work over the next year on regulation and whether there are tweaks required to the regulatory process, or how it might be improved. We’ve had it now for 30 years, so it is probably time to do a “drains-up” look at it, as we say, and look at where the regulation is working.
CB: Changing tact slightly here… In your opinion, does the UK need shale gas?
JA: Well, shale gas is still going to produce carbon emissions so it’s not a long-term solution. What does shale gas do? Well, it’s simply, potentially, gives you a cheaper form of natural gas than you might be paying for at the moment, or it reduces your dependency on other countries for moving or buying natural gas at the moment. It’s not a solution to climate change. It’s not a solution to reducing carbon emissions. So, it is only an economic opportunity, I don’t see it as having a part to play in our wider goal for reducing carbon emissions.
CB: How will infrastructure fit into the global goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C? Especially in light of the IPCC report that’s just been released.
JA: Well, it depends on your definition of infrastructure.
CB: Let’s say changes to infrastructure.
JA: Fundamentally, infrastructure, you could say there’s embedded carbon in certain ways in which we build infrastructure. So there is a challenge there for engineers to say: “Well, can we use different materials which can be less dependent on carbon to manufacture?”
Personally, I think you only make change in these sort of areas by setting goals. And setting goals which, at the end of the day, have to be goals which politicians see as being politically acceptable. Politicians aren’t going to set goals which are going to lose them votes at the end of the day. So, we all have a duty to, in the infrastructure world, to try and help out debate and open up that debate to increase the awareness the public have with these changes.
It’s been very interesting in the last few months, where we’ve seen this certain public awareness of plastic in the oceans. That gives, as we have already seen, governments saying, “oh, we are going to double the tax on plastic bags,” – because they know they’ll get away with it. The public is so concerned about plastic and the disposal of plastic that all the sudden they’re prepared to accept change to the standards and regulations. I think a lot of what we need to do is to set targets, set them sufficiently far out, so that industry can find different solutions. Manufacturers can accept that there’s going to be a cut-off from which they’re going to have to change. The change doesn’t have to be a sudden increase in costs because the market will then influence those market opportunities, which is what they are at the end of the day. And they needn’t cost anymore as you change from something that was damaging to the climate, to nature, to one which, in fact, is sustainable and can make those improvements we need.
In many ways, I think, when you look at aviation, when you look at shipping, when you look at motor vehicles – those transport areas – the real opportunities are going to come from the technologies around the planes, the cars, engines in the ships, as opposed to the physical infrastructure of the railroad, for example, or the highway. I think the big opportunities are more in the transport systems and for reducing the emissions in the transport systems. We believe that you can get the British public to 100% of new car sales being electric, as long as you reduce range anxiety. So there’s an infrastructure need there, to make sure that recharging infrastructure is in place, then the public are far more likely to be willing to shift to EVs.
CB: Another question about EVs then… Do you think the government’s 2040 ban on the sale of petrol vehicles is good enough to meet our targets and, if not, what date would you give for the ban?
JA: We haven’t actually gone into the ban territory. Our approach to it has been to say “let’s find targets which encourage sales”, or “let’s create the environment in which people are more willing to buy EVs rather than impose an absolute ban”. I think what you’re more likely to see – potentially, of course – is cities will start to introduce zero-carbon policies. So they will be saying to us: “If you’ve got a petrol or diesel vehicle, either you can’t bring it in at all, into the city, or if you do, we’re going to heavily tax you for bringing your car in.” So, driving us to change. I think just saying, “oh, we are going to ban all electric [sic petrol] and diesel vehicles by 2040,” is probably a pretty draconian step and not the ideal way to go. I’d rather go by making those series of opportunities, if you like, by creating an environment in which, for us, the natural choice becomes not to go to petrol, diesel, but to go electric. Ultimately, you could get to a date where you say: “Well, we’ve now got to maybe 75% EVs, so now let’s say, there will be nothing but EVs in five years or 10 years time” – rather than say some very long distance. The trouble with a very long distance target is that people just don’t get it and people say: “Well, we don’t need to change yet. Let’s just hang on.” Whereas, if you create the environment in which they want to change, that’s a more positive way doing it.
CB: And another transport question… How do you view the third runway at Heathrow proposal? And do you think it is compatible with the UK’s climate targets?
JA: Well, as a commission, we don’t have a position on the third runway, that’s specifically excluded from that remit. I was actually on the commission, however, which recommended the third runway. And that commission’s report said to the government: “We think the third runway is the right solution, but you should not allow the third runway, even if it’s built, to be put into operation until you’re confident that that introduction of that third runway is not going to increase carbon emissions from what they are today.”
So, in a way, we put an operational restraint around. And a particular challenge, not so much on the planes actually, because when you look at it, it’s more of the surface transport. How does the surface transport get to the airport? And what are the emissions created by so many more people going to the airport, which has become a larger airport? Now, potentially of course, that does get resolved if we move to EVs. So, I think there’s been a natural change, but the transport networks, which support the airport, could, in fact, mean that the impact is not as bad as people fear. The next generation of planes is clearly going to to be cleaner than the current generation of planes. That’s in the interest of the plane manufacturers and the operators because they want to get better efficiency out of those planes to reduce their costs.
So, what doesn’t go away, and the reason that we finished up with saying, “we’ve got to do this”, is that Heathrow operates at 95% capacity today – it doesn’t need very much for total chaos to result. We saw no drop – in fact, an increase – in the amount of travelling that people are going to do. So, in spite of everybody saying, “we’ll live in a world of virtual reality and we don’t need to travel” – we don’t buy that. We believe, particularly in aviation traffic and the increase of aviation traffic, it would be unrealistic to assume that we can see a reduction in air travel. Therefore, if you are not going to get that, then there is more a matter of how you manage those emissions and you control the consequences of that because it’s unlikely to go away as a demand.
CB: Do you agree, though, that it is very, very hard to cut emissions from aviation as a sector because of the technical issues?
JA: Well, it’s very hard today. That doesn’t mean that, in 25 years time, we won’t be seeing different propulsion systems. People are already talking about electric planes. It’s hard to imagine, but it was hard to imagine, 10 years ago, the iPhone. My personal view has always been one of which, if we can imagine something, then sooner or later we will do it. That is the nature of the human challenge; the human emotion. It is that, if I can imagine it, I want to do it. So I have great faith in that sense in science and technology coming to solutions for us.
CB: So, HS2. Do you see that as a help or hindrance for our climate targets?
JA: Well, clearly, if you can get more of a shift onto rail from road, then given that rail is going to be electric, then that’s a benefit. So, yes, HS2 improves the connectivity between our cities. It’s a capacity issue, it’s not a speed issue. So if you increase the capacity of the rail network from north to south – which is what HS2 does – then you’re going to encourage more people to travel because it’ll be more comfortable, it’s not going to be as crowded. They’ll be more willing to use the railway. If you’re building a new railway, automatically it tends to be a faster one anyway – so that has an economic benefit. But, in terms of climate change, then I think it has to be beneficial, which is why rail tends to be well supported by environmentalists, because on balance, it’s a clean way of travel.
CB: Now, I don’t know if you know this, but a former colleague of yours [Michael Liebreich] has described you as a “new convert” to climate change and renewable energy issues. I wondered if you would agree with that and, if so, what was it that converted you?
JA: It would be interesting to know the basis for that. I think my position has always been that we need to try and find an optimum solution. In the past, when I’ve been developing major projects, we have always had that trade-off between what can we afford and therefore, are there constraints on the environmental changes that we can make around a project? I was involved in very much the developmental phase of High Speed One. Now, I think on High Speed One, we set a new bar for the whole approach to environmental assessment and taking into account the impact of that project on the environment. Not only during operation, but very often during construction. If you talk to people who are affected by the introduction of new infrastructure, they are very often more worried about the impact on them when it is being built than they are once it’s in operation. I’ve long been, when I was last a contractor, we would consciously go out and talk to the local population and say: “Well what can we do to sort of assuage the impacts of this? How can we keep, even the simple things, like muddle through it, how can we reduce the congestion?” When we did Olympics: “How can we ensure that, in fact, no contaminated soil goes off the site?” We took great pride in cleaning all the soil and recovering 95% of it, so reducing massively the impact of lorry movements, and so on, on the local community
I think where I have been accused of a change of mind is on nuclear. Where, in the past, I’ve been a strong supporter of nuclear, this work that we have done in the national infrastructure assessment – and the evidence base that we have got for it – I think that we are in a different world today. We don’t have to be as dependent on a nuclear solution as maybe we thought we needed to be 10 years ago. If the evidence changes, then I’m quite happy to change my own reflection of that, my own views on that.
CB: So, do you remember what it was, however long ago it was, that first interested you in climate change or first made you realise that climate change was an important issue?
JA: I’m not sure whether I can put a specific date on it. I think I’m, in that sense – in many ways – I’m a member of the public. And the activity of a whole series of different organisations – Greenpeace, for one, which, I think, for somebody of my generation, the first time that this started to become pushed in front of us was actually through the activities of organisations like Greenpeace. I think we’re all influenced by other people’s opinions, other people’s action groups and so on, evidence which is put in front of us.
I live just down the road in London. The evidence of pollution is on my window sill every day. We like to leave the window open; we cleaned the window sill today, we will have to clean it again tomorrow. And you think: “Jeepers, I’m breathing that stuff.” So, just those simple manifestations of the pollution around us, I think. My first – in fact, now you talk about it, you just reminded me – the first environmental organisation I ever joined was a river protection system. I’ve been fishing since I was this age [gestures to a low height] and so it was an association about keeping our rivers clean, keeping our fish healthy and so on, which was around the 1950s. And I joined that organisation – with my two shillings a year, or whatever it cost, my 10p a year equivalent – for that simple reason that I saw here was an environmental change, or an human activity, which was impacting on my hobby and, therefore, I could see that: “Yes, we need to keep our rivers clean.” So, in a sense, being aware of those sort of impacts goes back to a long way.
As far as climate change itself, I think I’m no different than probably most engineers and scientists, in so far as, as the scientific evidences come forward, you listen to it and read it, you look at who is saying it, you look at the evidence base, you look at the peer reviews that go on some and you say: “Yes, I’m prepared to accept that evidence base.” There have always been the deniers of climate change, or deniers of our activity being the cause of climate change. I think most of nearly everyone in the engineering and scientific community, of course, today says: “No, look at the evidence, follow the evidence and we can see the need for change.”
CB: Do you think the IPCC’s assessments over the years have played a role in that?
JA: Oh, absolutely. Massively. Because of their independence, in a way. And, I think – it’s rather like ourselves at the commission – it is important that we are not seen as being a body of government, particularly, but we are an independent body. If you can demonstrate your independence, if you can demonstrate the legitimacy of your research, than you’re more likely to get some political buy in, you’re more likely the public buy in. At the end of the day, the reality does sit with the politicians, the real opportunity for change, largely, is driven by politicians. But then, politicians will always be more than happy to follow public opinion. So, you can argue that, rather than try and shift the politicians, if you can actually shift public opinion, then the political will follow. That’s the very nature of politics.
CB: My penultimate question, then. How would you like the UK to look in 2050? How will we be heating our homes? What will we be using for transport? What sort of food will we be eating? What’s your vision for that, personally?
JA: Well, I think, clearly in 2050, the sort of ambitions that we have set out in our national infrastructure assessment is for a country which is no longer burning much carbon, whether it’s for energy or for transport. It’s renewable, so we’re creating clean energy systems. That, in fact, our waste is being recycled. That we’ve essentially managed to find substitutes to making plastics, which we use unnecessarily today. Why do we continue to use polystyrene and PVC? There must be other solutions, there are other solutions. So by 2050, we shouldn’t be using those sort of products at all – unless they’re absolutely necessary and, where they are necessary, the manufacturing techniques and so on need to be adjusted too.
I can see a very much cleaner environment in 2050. The ability to do that, we have. The point I made in my talk, which I gave earlier on briefly this afternoon [at the Global Engineering Congress], was there are no great new technologies which we have to invent to actually make these changes. All we have to do is set ourselves some goals, set ourselves some target dates and have the emotional and political willingness to get on and do it. I think the public are becoming more and more aware, which is going to be a key driver. Younger people are even more aware, which is always good news. The generational change is going to help deliver a lot of this. So, I think we can look forward to 2050 being the net-zero carbon target. We have to do it. We absolutely have to do it, if we are going to – it’s very an emotional tag – save the planet, if we are going to minimise the impact that we have as the human race on our planet, on the other species on the planet, on the biodiversity of the planet, on the beauty of the planet. Our ability to do that lies in our willingness to change. I think, coming back to the National Infrastructure Commission, I hope that we can be a vehicle for that change.
CB: So, finally, what themes can we expect to see in the next infrastructure assessment report?
The themes will be largely the same, I think. We’ll start work in the next few months. We’ll have slightly longer to do it, so we’ll have a bigger evidence base, more time to build our evidence base. We’ll report sometime around 2023. The core themes I suspect will be largely the same. Is there going to be some massive technological breakthrough in that time which would cause us to change? I would hope to see progress on hydrogen. I would hope us to be in better position to be able to firm up on our recommendations about being able to be 80%-plus dependent on renewables by 2050, as opposed to 40%. So, I think that challenge will continue. But we’ll have better evidence, we’ll have hopefully secure evidence, to enable us to firm up on some of the proposals we made to them in this assessment.
CB: Thank you very much.
JA: Thank you.
The interview was conducted by Daisy Dunne on 24 October 2018 at the Global Engineering Congress held in London.