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Cutting out the carbon

The Climate Change Act came into force in the UK last November. It provides a legal framework for reducing emissions to prevent the recession and a wealth of technological challenges getting in the way. The forthcoming Gibson Review will ensure engineers have a role in its success, reports Jo Stimpson

The Climate Change Act insists upon swift change. The ambitious legislation demands an 80% reduction in the UK’s emissions, and is even more ambitious for demanding it in a recession. It is the cornerstone of the government’s drive toward a sustainable economy. But the Act’s success will depend on the commitment of civil engineers.

“They will have a big part to play in reducing emissions with their clients and supply chains,” says Forum for the Future principal sustainability advisor Lorna Pelly. So how will the industry be affected?

The fundamental tenet of the Act is that by 2050 the UK’s net carbon account for greenhouse gases must be 80% lower than it was in 1990. Carbon budgets will be set for consecutive four year periods, the first of which is 2008 to 2012.

Annually, the government will give an account of emissions and how they compare to the previous year, to track progress. The Act − which became law in November last year − also orders the creation of the Committee on Climate Change, an independent advisory body.

Seizing the opportunity

The government subsequently announced in the Budget a £405M investment to help UK industry take advantage of the global market for low carbon goods and services − estimated to be worth £3 trillion rising to £4.5 trillion by 2015.

Last month it published its Low Carbon Transition Plan outlining plans to invest beyond the £405M to revamp the UK’s power supply and distribution systems, investigate railway electrification and low carbon cars and address the need to reduce harmful emissions in the agriculture and waste industries and from poorly equipped homes (NCE 6-13 August).

This autumn, the government is expected to present a further report focusing specifically on engineering construction − the Gibson Review. Its purpose is to ensure that UK engineers have the skills and resources to develop a low carbon economy and to compete internationally in low carbon industries, such as new nuclear build. This, says business secretary Peter Mandelson, will ensure “that those jobs and that innovation come to the UK”.

“The carbon component is going to start biting in a few years, there’s no question about that. We need to become more aware of the impacts of legislation.”

David Pratt, Carbon Trust

“The Climate Change Act is a very significant opportunity to reduce carbon,” says Carbon Trust industrial and manufacturing sector lead David Pratt. “The carbon component is going to start biting in a few years, there’s no question about that. We need to become more aware of the impacts of legislation.”

One of the biggest challenges, he says, will be complying with the Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC). This cap and trade scheme, building on the Climate Change Act, means that from April 2010, 5,000 organisations in the public and private sectors will have to buy allowances for their CO2 emissions at £12/t. That price is expected to rise, but at the end of the year the companies doing best will receive their money back plus 10%. League tables will show who is lowering their emissions most and least − which could help or hurt reputations.

The league tables will significantly influence behaviour, says Pratt, and they will mean “a move away from the traditional ways in which companies are judged”. Pelly agrees: “The CRC is a big wake up call for businesses. There will be a steep learning curve in terms of the technical requirements, but with money and reputation at stake, businesses will respond.”

“The CRC is a big wake up call. With money and reputation at stake, businesses will respond.”

Lorna Pelly, Forum for the Future

The CRC is likely to have a considerable financial impact: allowances for 2010 to 2011 must be bought retrospectively in 2011, at the same time as allowances will need to be purchased for the next year − a double sale that could prove very costly.

With the Climate Change Act and CRC already in motion, civil engineers need to take steps now to comply with the legislation. There are emissions reductions to be had all around − the Carbon Trust says lighting is one of the biggest areas of potential energy saving and Pratt says a recent strategic survey highlighted transportation to site as an area to be looked at by contractors.

He also says collaboration between engineers and designers is crucial to influencing the choice of carbon-conscious suppliers and the implementation of low carbon technologies. “We need to see the engineers more determined to see some of these technologies embedded in designs,” he says.

World architecture

The latest political milestone in the global initiative to cut carbon emissions takes place in Copenhagen shortly after the World Architecture Festival. By way of a preview, a festival keynote presentation and panel discussion will assess the contribution architects can make in their design of buildings and their strategies for city-making.

What is the relationship between carbon cost expended in the creation of buildings as opposed to cost in use? How should we assess whether to refurbish, adapt or replace? Are there optimum methods of construction which make ‘long life, loose fit, low energy’ easier to achieve? And at a city level, how could we best make switches from high to low-carbon environments through devolved energy provision and virtuous power sources?

The session will also examine the relationship between architects and engineers, and the way in which planning regimes can work with utility companies to address problems which we know are coming our way.


Pioneering measures are already appearing in the engineering and construction sectors: carbon labelling sees the amount of carbon emitted in the manufacture of products (such as cement) declared upfront; waste products from other industries (such as steel) are considered carbon-neutral and may be recycled in subsequent projects; and carbon calculators mean clients can be told from the beginning how much carbon is involved in meeting their needs.

Furthermore, to help engineers lower emissions in line with the Climate Change Act, Forum for the Future has issued four guidelines: make sustainable options attractive for clients; embed low carbon thinking and practice into the culture of the industry; demand sustainability through materials and processes specifications; and integrate carbon consciousness into training courses.

Keeping the balance

Pratt says small-but-effective steps like these will bring us closer to the conditions of the Climate Change Act while keeping an eye on finances. “There’s always this constant balance between profitability and sustainability issues − you’ve got to have that balance,” he says. But Pelly says a more dramatic overhaul of old practice is necessary. “Incremental improvements will not be enough. We need to re-think our transport, energy and communication systems and engineers need to be at the centre of that debate,” she says. “A lot of design is still based on what worked in the past, rather than thinking about what is necessary for the future.”

“A lot of design is still based on what worked in the past, rather than thinking about what is necessary for the future.”

Lorna Pelly, Forum for the Future

Accordingly, schemes are appearing that encourage low carbon innovations. Engineers of the 21st Century is a programme for partners − including Arup, Atkins, Balfour Beatty, the Highways Agency and Network Rail − to bring together young engineers with senior managers to explore low carbon solutions.

The Energy Technologies Institute (ETI), meanwhile, is assembling building sector experts in a consortium to identify strategies for reducing domestic energy consumption − which currently accounts for around a third of UK CO2 emissions. “A fresh approach is needed to enable the government to meet its emissions targets,” says ETI chief executive David Clarke.

But alongside its environmental benefits, the Climate Change Act could also present a good opportunity to generate more business by cultivating green credentials.

“My clients are highlighting the fact that their customers are asking that they have a policy on carbon management,” says Pratt. “Companies are trying to leapfrog each other so their brands and products are recognised.” The pressure to be low carbon − both from clients and the government − will only become more pressing with time, he says.

The essential thing that must happen, he says, is “a behavioural change across the industry”. What civil engineers should take away from the Climate Change Act is the need to consider their carbon emissions as a matter of course − “If there’s one message for the industry to take forward,” says Pratt, “it’s being more carbon-savvy.”

NCE carbon challenge

How will you meet the challenge?

We want to hear your thoughts and case studies about how you intend to design, construct or operate infrastructure in a low carbon future.

Who must take the lead and what will it take for the current low carbon rhetoric to have real meaning?

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