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Defenders of the earth

Viewpoint - The ICE's Mark Broadhurst responds to questions on sustainability and the law of unintended consequences

There has been a spate of correspondence in NCE questioning the assertion that mankind is at least partially responsible for climate change. Questions have also been raised as to the engineer's role in addressing the problem and whether the ICE should play a part.

To respond we must look at our history. As engineers we may have 'mastered the art of directing the great sources of nature for the benefit and convenience of man', but we have done so with disregard to the environment.

Thanks to massive irrigation and water abstraction schemes built in the 1950s and 1960s to enable the exploitation of cotton as a cash crop in the southern Soviet states, the Aral Sea has virtually disappeared.

Within a generation, water has receded to the extent that the rusting hulks of shing boats sit abandoned miles from the nearest water. These projects were designed and built by civil engineers.

Acid rain in Scandinavia, during the 1970s and 1980s was eventually traced back to, principally, UK coal- red power stations and led to a vastly expensive programme of flue-gas desulphurisation.

Recently, the air pollution in Beijing was so bad that even the Chinese government was moved to describe it as hazardous. The principal causes are the everincreasing number of motor vehicles, industrial efuent and pollution caused by coalfired power stations.

We do not seem willing to learn.

Irrespective of the causes of climate change we have a duty to mitigate its impacts in an affordable, environmentally and socially acceptable manner.

As part of its submission to the government's recent Energy Review, the ICE asserted that a number of power stations, both coalfired and nuclear, are coming to the end of their design lives and will need to be replaced. But until we address the inef ciencies in the existing system - some 40% of energy is lost between generation and final use - how can we expect the public to accept our case?

To be fair the ICE made the case for tackling these inefficiencies in its response to the Review. But the public's perception of the Institution remains that of an organisation only interested in big projects, including nuclear, for its members. While this view is incorrect, it is true that we are not communicating what we do very well, for which I can only apologise.

Our main project is the Sector Sustainability Strategy, part of our commitment enshrined in the Protocol for Engineering, a sustainable future for the planet, signed by the presidents of ICE, the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering and the American Society of Civil Engineers.

In addition, we have a role in ensuring that the sustainability aspirations for the 2012 Olympics become a reality and are developing a project to assess the carbon footprint for UK infrastructure.

This is an exciting time and I welcome feedback from our members. The ICE is aware that more and better communication is vital for our future.

Mark Broadhurst is chairman of the ICE Environment and Sustainability Board

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