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FIDIC 2009: Forward thinking

The FIDIC London 2009 conference agreed to lobby hard to achieve agreement at this December’s climate change summit in Copenhagen but the outcome must be about more that just a target, argues ACE chief executive Nelson Ogunshakin.

If governments are serious about moving to a low-carbon economy, avoiding wars over resources and alleviating poverty then they would do well to heed what consulting engineers are saying.

For the last year there has been one elephant in the room: the global recession. There are many fine ideas and sincere aspirations, but without investment in infrastructure none of what the delegates at Copenhagen want to achieve will be possible.

Setting targets will not be enough. For Copenhagen to make a difference there must be agreement on practical details.

A long-term, integrated, strategic approach to infrastructure development should establish clear dependencies between different forms of infrastructure, and with other policy areas.

The best balance

Transport will have a central role to play. Congestion and pollution have significant knock-on effects for the environment and the economy. While public and private investment is likely to be limited for some years to come, transport investment should be targeted on those projects that deliver the best balance of environmental, economic and social benefits.

All of the UK’s main political parties appear to support the idea of a new high speed railway line, which would have significant benefits for sustainability and economic development. However, there is a risk that reducing investment in the existing network to pay for a new line would limit the overall benefit.

This highlights another consideration: that policy must be more intelligent than simply reducing car usage. Small road vehicles are still essential for people and businesses in many parts of the country; therefore, making road travel more sustainable without limiting competitiveness and social inclusion should be a core objective.

“Policy must be more intelligent than simply reducing car usage. Vehicles are essential for people in many parts of the country.”

Decarbonising transport, particularly through rail electrification and electric vehicles, will also be required. There are many exciting ways to achieve this, such as the introduction of smart grids to re-charge cars.

But this will not be possible without addressing the other crucial factor: the need for large volumes of low-carbon electricity.

It is essential that new generating capacity is delivered as a matter of urgency. New energy generation capacity should be consistent with climate change objectives, and support other policy areas. UK policymakers will need to consider the most appropriate energy mix. Their options range from nuclear to renewable generation.

But more will need to be done: technological investment will be needed to maximise the power of renewable energy to ensure it is economically efficient. This will mean either government investment or new ways to encourage private sector activity.

Urgent reform

None of these new developments is possible without urgent reform of planning. Efficient procedures should ensure that the views of local people are taken into account, while minimising the bureaucratic burden on developers and ensuring that the process takes no longer than necessary.

Yet none of this smart development can be achieved overnight. Making the UK’s infrastructure fit for the post-Copenhagen world is a long term project. The two things that will do much to turn this December’s headlines into next year’s action plans are collaboration with industry and the skills to deliver.

“For maximum benefit, the chief construction adviser will require appropriate terms of reference and a direct line of communication to the Prime Minister.”

Close cooperation with the business community will be crucial; there has never been a time in history when engineering expertise was needed more. The UK government’s announcement that a chief construction adviser is going to be appointed is one way to ensure that crucial industry expertise is at the heart of government.

For maximum benefit, the chief construction adviser will require appropriate terms of reference and a direct line of communication to the Prime Minister. A large, skilled workforce will also be essential. The UK needs to drive up the numbers of young people studying maths, science and technology-based (STEM) subjects to prepare them for the exciting future career opportunities.

While the recent upturn in the numbers of science students is to be welcomed, this must not be a one-off gesture. Failure to invest in the workforce of the future risks seriously impeding progress.

Industry must also take its responsibilities seriously, by engaging with the debate at the national and international level and fostering a culture of cooperation, knowledge-sharing and trust. The business world must also demonstrate commitment to eradicating corruption and acting with complete integrity and honesty. Otherwise, the benefits to humanity could be lost.

The opportunities are immense. Agreement at Copenhagen could set the world onto a sound, low carbon path for decades to come.

But the headlines and plaudits will be meaningless if they are not translated into real activity. Tough talk and targets will set the direction, but only serious commitment to action will make a difference.

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