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Analysis | The climate change debate

Groundwater Flood Risk 3x2

It’s widely acknowledged that dinner party discussions should always steer clear of sex, religion or politics. And it seems the climate change debate is the latest addition on the list of forbidden topics.

For many people climate change is not a scientific issue, it’s a cultural issue linked to the values they hold dearly, says Andrew Hoffman, professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan.

But where does the construction industry stand on this thorny issue?

The Environment Agency’s Business opportunities in a changing climate report shows that far from shying away from the issue, UK business are already exploring the opportunities that planning for climate change brings. Many clients are already fully aware of the benefits of maintaining business continuity in the face of the climate change. Effectively protecting vital assets, can even give them a competitive advantage.

The report acknowledged that the UK has world-class expertise in this field with sectors such as environmental and engineering consultancy and construction already exporting products and services globally to help clients manage climate change impacts, including flood alleviation schemes and temporary flood defences.

“UK businesses are identifying opportunities to build climate resilience and to capitalise on expanding, evolving and emerging markets,” said the report. “Identifying climate-related opportunities is an emerging area for many businesses, yet those taking early action will gain first-mover advantage.

“Those businesses with a keen eye to develop or extend existing products and services to help others adapt could significantly increase revenues.”

According to the report, potential opportunities in the market for climate-related products and services are considerable: in 2010/11, the global market was estimated to be worth £65.8bn. In 2011/12, UK companies are estimated to have generated between £2.1bn and £6.1bn through sales of climate-related goods and services. This represents a significant growth in the market over recent years.

Hoffman believes it is important for businesses to frame sustainability discussions in a way that really focuses on the long-term economic benefits. However, he raises the concern that there will not be widespread “buy in” until there is a significant increase in climate-related events. “We are moved to action by [catastrophic] events that cause us to question our beliefs,” he says.

It’s a worrying assertion but Hoffman makes a fair point. Perhaps an increase in climate-change related disasters is necessary to motivate more asset owners and operators to tackle the issue proactively.

While it can be disheartening to see the climate change naysayers ignore the warning signs, the engineering industry is continuing to play its part in the debate by working to reduce carbon emissions and improve sustainability across projects. Engineers must now take the opportunity to drive this change further and reap the rewards of gaining the “first-mover advantage” – a positive move for profit margins, as well as the future of the planet.

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