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Carbon reduction gathers pace in the US

Industry comment by John Boyd, President, FIDIC

In North America, the construction industry is seeing a steady increase in the number of clients with a commitment to sustainability. In the building market, the Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) energy efficiency rating was one of the earliest widely adopted protocols and it has become very common for government and private developers to require its use.

This protocol is as effective as anything in use elsewhere but will not get our building sector to the levels of performance required to fundamentally resolve climate change problems.

Government focus on fuel efficiency is radically changing the automobile industry, but we have yet to see a similar focus on the efficiency of public transport.

Increased government focus on fuel efficiency is radically changing the automobile industry, but apart from an initial interest in more fuel efficient buses that were not particularly successful, we have yet to see a similar focus on the efficiency of public transport.

Generally, public transport is not a very efficient process throughout much of North America because of low population density and great travel distances.

Existing public transport has a low utilisation factor and runs with few passengers for most of the day.

Because of plentiful supplies of coal, oil and gas, and the time required to successfully license new nuclear power plants (to say nothing of the unresolved waste problem), reliance on fossil fuel will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future.

Existing progress

Legislation promised by the new United States President Barack Obama, if passed, would have a very significant impact on the cost of electricity supplied by existing coal and oil fired facilities and presumably also on usage. But it should be pointed out that in many parts of North America there have been drives to increase the efficiency of energy use for many, many years and these have already had significant impact.

Although positive steps are being taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions throughout North America, they are not of a scale that will bring emissions within the limits suggested by the experts.

There is now a renewed focus on sequestration of greenhouse gases − for example the government of Alberta (where much of the oil and gas is found in Canada) recently committed $2bn (£1.2bn) to pilot studies of CO2 capture and sequestration in underground reservoirs and has selected designers for three pilot plants.

In addition it has earmarked £600M to £1.8bn for subsidies to sequestration projects in future.

North America was slow to install wind turbines initially and, although new projects continue to be announced, they are encountering significant public opposition.

Unless such installations are twinned with pumped storage power so that the energy output can be saved until needed on the grid, experience everywhere shows that they are not as effective as they might be. While contributing to greener power supply, they will remain a minute contribution to the overall climate change problem.

Getting up to scale

In summary, although positive steps are being taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions throughout North America, in common with most of the world, they are not of a scale that will bring emissions within the limits suggested by the experts.

The engineering industry will be in the centre of this issue both in terms of developing solutions, and persuading their clients to use them.

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