Europe (virtual) 2023: Paving the way to green roads

McKinsey finds that $1.4 trillion in road infrastructure investment will be needed annually till 2040 to meet global demand and urbanization. Yet this infrastructure also contributes substantial carbon emissions throughout its lifecycle, including via materials production, construction, operations, and maintenance. It’s critical that stakeholders approach new and existing road assets with sustainability objectives in mind and pave the way for green roads.

On June 15, 2023, the Global Infrastructure Initiative (GII) convened its second in a series of small-group discussions on the future of roads. The roundtable gathered road developers and operators, Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) institutions, and public sector decision-makers to explore the future of greener roads. Three key themes emerged:

  1. Scope 3 GHG emissions is a critical battleground, typically accounting for more than 90 percent of total emissions for road infrastructure players. This highlights challenges that must be addressed in collaboration with suppliers, road users, authorities, and grantors. In this regard, the industry has a long way to go from reaching its stated ambitions. Participants agree that they have the tools to reduce scope 1 and 2 emissions, but scope 3 emissions are the most important and complicated to tackle, as doing so relies heavily on collaboration with public authorities. Participants also highlighted the rising importance of strong leadership capabilities and stakeholder management skills in advancing the business case for sustainability initiatives.
  2. Public road authorities play a crucial role in enabling progress towards sustainability. When polled, 42 percent of the group cited regulatory uncertainty as the industry’s biggest challenge to realizing green roads. One executive said, “We don’t have the leeway to switch tolling to free-flow; the concessionaire needs to agree.” However, members of the group also highlighted that Europe is relatively well-positioned to create a common regulatory framework and play a globally leading role. Collective will is essential—as one member put it: “Once you have real drive to do this, you will work around the challenges.”
  3. Innovation is underway; don’t wait for a silver bullet. Participants shared some of the practical endeavors they are pursuing in their respective countries and parts of the value chain. These included dynamic or free-flow tolling; optimizing road patrols through artificial intelligence; or collecting and recycling water from roadways. No solution is a silver bullet, but starting sooner than later, with a portfolio of varied initiatives, can make a difference.