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Comment | Transforming lives means tackling Carbon

Mark Hansford

It’s time for an engineering revolution.

So we said in March 2016 in the warm afterglow of the historic COP21 deal on climate change, where 195 nations committed to limiting global temperature rise this century to below 2°C (and even agreed to target keeping it to within 1.5°C of pre-industrial levels).

It was, said then United Nations (UN) secretary general Ban Ki-moon, “a monumental triumph for people and our planet”. Monumental because the alternative is runaway warming that will fundamentally change life as we know it.

Vital civil engineers role

But it was not – is not – going to happen without civil engineers. The science tells us that it is the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that is unquestionably the cause of climate change, and that is driven by our carbon-based society. And decarbonisation is fundamentally an engineering problem – a civil engineering problem at that. As the UK government’s now five year old Infrastructure Carbon Review highlighted, the infrastructure sector has full control over 16% of total carbon-based emissions and influence over a further 37%. And as power generation is increasingly “greened” over the coming years, and energy-hungry sectors such as transport embrace this renewable energy, carbon emissions from the construction and maintenance of infrastructure will become increasingly significant, and decarbonising infrastructure an increasingly high priority.

Hence the call for a revolution.

So two years on, where are we?

Worsening emissions

It is not good. In January the UN indicated that 2017 and 2016 were the second and third hottest years on record. Worse, global carbon emissions rose again in 2017 after three years of little-to-no growth.

Meanwhile how has our industry changed? Not much. The materials and methods used to build, operate and maintain infrastructure remain carbon-intensive.

Istock 623296954 1 crop

Istock 623296954 1 crop

Engineers must get more involved in efforts to cut carbon emissions

We are still not using whole-life carbon emissions as the primary parameter by which we decide what gets built and how it gets built. But then we are still not even using whole life costs (totex) as a primary calculation rather than capital costs (capex) on anything but a handful of projects in the utility sector. And Anglian Water is still seen as the only client that really cares about this.

Will anything force a change? Well, this month we report on something that might: money. Institutional investors and insurers are waking up to the threat to their investments posed by climate risks and starting to ask searching questions of the companies and the projects they have invested in; and through them, they are asking searching questions of the companies that have advised them. Companies like civil engineering consultancies.

Financial risk

The bottom line is that there is real financial risk here. These investors are not fools. They expect and demand good advice. And companies that fail to advise on the risks to clients will be exposed to the risk of litigation.

It becomes a question of professional competence. If climate change mitigation is now a fundamental infrastructure design parameter in the eyes of those who ultimately finance it, to what extent are such skills embedded in learning and development requirements of chartered civil engineers? That is the question now being asked of our profession.

It is another challenge to professional competence. It comes as ICE past president Richard Coackley begins to probe the ICE’s CPD offer in the wake of its Grenfell-inspired inquiry into risk of infrastructure failure and vice president Ed McCann reviews the skillsets required in a future chartered civil engineer.

All this in the ICE’s bicentenary year, where the emphasis is rightly being placed on the role of the civil engineer in transforming lives.

Slowing climate change is, without question, the single greatest transformation that can be achieved on a mass scale.

It really is time for that revolution.

  • Mark Hansford is New Civil Engineer’s editor

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