The Race to Net Zero: Decarbonisation Healthcare Estates in NI

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  • The Race to Net Zero: Decarbonisation Healthcare Estates in NI
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Carolyn Brady


Carolyn Brady


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Back in December 2021, the Department for Economy published the Northern Ireland Energy Strategy – the Path to Net Zero Energy. As part of this strategy, health services in Northern Ireland joined forces with their UK counterparts to commit to reducing the 5% global emissions that the healthcare sector is accountable for.

For Northern Ireland (NI) this meant, “developing a sustainable and low carbon health system to help meet NI emission targets”, assessing greenhouse gas emissions and ensuring an action plan for the health and social care system, in line with the NI Executive’s Green Growth strategy. What this translated to in operational terms was each Trust, including their supply chains, needed to be accountable for their own carbon emissions through robust assessment and measurement processes as well as identifying adaptions required for climate change resilience.

Yet for many professionals who work in Health and Social Care (HSC) and across the six NI healthcare Trusts, the challenges of knowing where to start in achieving these aims, integrating sustainability targets alongside operational objectives, budget restraints and often without the sustainability skill sets within their estate’s teams, feels near impossible.

Decarbonisation pathways

To create a decarbonisation pathway, it is important to apply a structured process to be able to map how your goals will be achieved and ultimately realise them. Establishing a pathway will simplify this complex process and allow you to:

  • Map critical requirements such as data acquisition and analysis
  • Validate requirements (fabric/operational efficiency first, optioneering/retrofit scenarios: cost, savings, capital and ops programme)
  • Look at implementation and asset management (install, monitor and track verify savings, optimise and adjust)
  • Assess regulation and policy frameworks.

To reach both government led goals and those set by individual Trusts, there needs to be credible, Science Based Targets (SBTi) alongside these decarbonisation pathways, tailored to your data and linked with practical actions. To create SBTi, credible and robust data is required. This will enable a decarbonisation pathway, which can be set out as a collaborative effort by internal sustainability teams, or through utilising external sustainability specialists. Once the pathway and SBTis are established, implementation can begin which will mean working closely with estates’ teams, M&E engineers and cost consultants or using a multi-service consultancy like RLB to create and deliver your decarbonisation strategy. 

Using sustainability-oriented surveys, baseline energy consumption and efficiency of building fabric and services can be evaluated to develop your roadmap for decarbonisation. This analysis can be progressed into feasibility studies with modelled energy reductions based on detailed designs. This will allow you to compare current energy usage against calculated and potential energy consumption if energy efficiency works are undertaken. The whole life cycle assessment and coordination of the best energy-efficient solutions is essential, and will enable commerciality reviews for both CAPEX and OPEX.

Hidden opportunities and benchmarking

The team at RLB works with some of the leading NHS Trusts across the UK, supporting them to achieve their Green Plans and decarbonise their estates. The first step in any decarbonisation agenda is to generate a true understanding of energy and emissions data of your real estate and benchmarking any sustainability targets.  

For some this can mean incorporating sustainability analysis into condition surveys that are already being undertaken, for others, it could be commissioning specific surveys or using digital twins to generate robust baseline data to create an understanding of the estate’s carbon usage. For many of the Trusts, their estate portfolio varies in age, size, materials and condition, so detailing differing existing stock – whether Grade 1 listed, 1970s purpose built or recent builds – and understanding their carbon emissions individually – whether that be embodied carbon or operational carbon – is essential. 

Once a carbon emission picture has been built up of the whole estate, then benchmarking can begin.

Digital dashboarding

With data gathered, formulating it into readable and shareable insights to be able to benchmark and prioritise activity against time and cost is key. Adhering to a ‘fabric first’ approach methodology, sustainable energy improvement measures and low-carbon solutions will need to be implemented to optimise estates and comply with sustainable governance. Digitising estates data can provide critical efficiency benefits in operation; considering BMS, targeting hotspots and identifying opportunities for improvement. Deploying digital solutions will help you quickly understand the current energy performance of your assets, using the data collected to inform the planning, development, management and measurement of a decarbonisation roadmap.

Working with teams like RLB Digital to create a digital dashboard that filters data can allow estate managers to optioneer their activity – looking at priority, impact on operations and possible inventions that can work towards decarbonisation, and from this create a bespoke decarbonisation roadmap to support energy efficiency goals, as well as achievable milestones and measurement tools. Climate change action plans incorporating capital costs, return on investment and marginal abatement cost curves (MACC), are key to assessing different mitigation options. The digital dashboards can be shared with key stakeholders within the Trust, as well as within the larger Health and Social Care network. The data shared on these dashboards can also align to other capital budgets and operational activity to ascertain where cross over of budgets or economies of scale could be made to benefit decarbonisation efforts.

Manage and reduce carbon impacts

It is imperative that your decarbonisation roadmap is integrated across your estate to achieve economies of scale, minimise disruption and achieve long-term sustainability objectives. Being able to recognise how decarbonisation interventions can coordinate with backlog maintenance and capital expenditure recommended works will allow you to create an efficient estate strategy over a five to 10-year period.

And of course, it is essential to remember that often the largest carbon impacts can be indirect, from supply chains to building materials – but still within your influence. With 8% of global emissions attributed to cement production alone, design and construction choices have huge impacts. Work with consultants like the RLB Sustainability team to understand how to manage and reduce carbon through knowledge of global standards including GHG Protocol Scope 3, PAS 2080, RICS Whole Life Carbon Assessment and EN 15978 Lifecycle Carbon Analysis.

In conclusion

Ensuring that decarbonisation is integrated into the lifecycle of all your buildings going forward and enabling accountability for the carbon emission data will help future proof your estates. This can provide operational cost savings, avoid carbon emissions, and benefit occupant wellbeing. Capturing asset data and understanding the insights that result from this data, can support estate managers in managing planned maintenance, asset life cycles, technical due diligence and statutory compliance to optimise expenditure and estate performance. Using bespoke digital tools, sustainable benchmarking techniques and strategic digital dashboards, can really help understand the energy performance of your assets, but also support “developing a sustainable and low carbon health system to help meet NI emission targets” as part of your path to net zero and create higher performing and more sustainable buildings which meet today’s challenges and those of tomorrow.

For further information about how RLB can help you with your decarbonisation objectives, incorporate digital solutions to help create, monitor and measure sustainability roadmaps and how to incorporate sustainable solutions throughout the lifecycle of your buildings, please contact Carolyn Brady on or Heather Evans on