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Comment | It is time for an engineering revolution

Cutting carbon

The COP21 deal late last year was a monumental triumph for people and our planet. So said United Nations (UN) secretary general Ban Ki-moon moments after the historic breakthrough to combat climate change was announced.

So said United Nations (UN) secretary general Ban Ki-moon moments after the historic breakthrough deal to combat climate change was announced.

For us civil engineers it is a huge moment in our history. As Ban said, we have entered a new era of global cooperation on one of the most complex issues ever to confront humanity. And this issue is all about civil engineering.

Why? Because the science tells us that carbon is unquestionably the cause of climate change, and decarbonisation is fundamentally an engineering problem. And a civil engineering problem at that.

As the 2013 Infrastructure Carbon Review highlighted, the infrastructure sector has full control over 16% of total UK carbon emissions and influence over a further 37% – that’s 515M.t CO2 equivalent (CO2e) in 2010.

So it is time for an engineering revolution. Last month New Civil Engineer focused on the emerging technologies that can transform how and what we deliver. This month we are focusing in on how these new found methods can be used to deliver radically lower carbon projects.

It does all start with clients. We do need to see some real leadership. As ICE vice president Keith Clarke tells us, whole-life CO2e should be the primary parameter by which we decide what gets built and if it gets built. All our projects must have a totex primary calculation rather than capex. Anglian Water and its fellow water companies can’t keep being the only clients that really care about this.

But that is no excuse for complacency elsewhere. Individual

organisations can take a leading position. Take global engineering giant Acciona. It has set itself the goal of becoming a carbon neutral contractor in 2016.

It’s a huge statement. The Madrid-based giant turned over €6.5bn (£5bn) in 2014 and builds infrastructure projects across Europe and the world – and indeed it is bidding to build High Speed 2 in the UK.

But it has clear ambitions to be not just a sustainable company, but the most sustainable company in the world.

That is what chairman and chief executive José Manuel Entrecanales told the COP21 UN Climate Summit in Paris.

“Our ambition is to be the most sustainable company in the world – in our choice of investments, in the services we deliver, and in the day to day of our business operations,” he said.

Mitigating the effects of climate change has now been made Acciona’s top strategic objective, and carbon neutrality will be achieved by a relentless programme of carbon reduction in its projects – with major programmes of work in its supply chain – and a massive upscaling of its investment in renewable energy.

I spent a couple of days with Acciona in Madrid this month and the passion and belief in this as a cause and as a strategic business goal is contagious. To them it is a no-brainer. How can you even pretend to be a sustainable business if you are not actively striving to leave it to your children and your children’s children in great shape? So yes, that means financial sustainability, but also environmental sustainability and social sustainability too.

The simple fact that Acciona can cut group CO2 emissions by 46% in five years through diligent application of a strategy shows that major – revolutionary – change is possible. And with new tools coming in May through PAS 2080, the first publicly-available standard for quantifying whole life carbon in economic infrastructure, the excuses for inaction are running out.

It is time for a revolution.

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