International environmental consultancy is gaining a foothold, discovers Alan Sparks.
Green is gold. The international market for environmental engineering is growing at between 5% and 10% year on year, reckons Halcrow international environmental director Malcolm Hendry. 'Almost without exception, every project we undertake internationally now has an environmental angle, ' he says.
Multinational companies are tripping over themselves to project an environmentally responsible image to an increasingly green-conscious public. UK engineering consultants are well placed to offer skills, having cut their teeth on environmentally sensitive projects for clients in the high profile oil, gas and water sectors.
'Arguably the biggest driver for growth in environmental work outside the UK is the influence of international funding agencies, such as the World Bank, ' says Mott MacDonald director Paul Ashley. International lending banks are increasingly conscious of the need to evaluate the long term impact of projects on their surroundings and are unlikely to offer support unless risk is minimised, he says.
Building on reputations established over years of delivering infrastructure, British firms are also winning work advising governments.
Like the banks, governments are waking up to the importance of environmental management. There has been an upsurge in work for government water companies in the Middle East, Ashley says.
Former Soviet states like Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan are now in control of their own oil and must get to grips with a legacy of environmental degradation, as well as with the task of minimising future environmental damage.
'Oil companies are leaders in environmental investment. They are investing in their environmental responsibilities, and others are already looking to follow, ' Ashley adds.
Eastern European countries seeking to join the European Union are receiving EU money to bring infrastructure across all sectors up to western European standards. As well as transportation, water supply, sewerage and power projects, the EU is keen to see brownfield regeneration and waste management given higher priority. UK firms are particularly active in Romania, Bulgaria and Poland.
Work in India and China has been growing steadily in all sectors, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) not withstanding. The environmental sector is increasingly prominent on clients' agendas.
Working on environmental projects carries similar risks overseas as any other engineering activity. Overheads can be high and margins low.
Firms often struggle to break into markets at all without a local office and staff.
'We could not even break into the Dublin market with our Cork people, ' admits the environment director of large UK consulting firm. 'It was not until we acquired Dublin firms that we could make inroads into what is now one of our biggest markets.'
Nor does guaranteed finance from governments or funding agencies mean that firms will necessarily be paid on time, if at all. 'Governments change and so can their commitment to payment. International institutions may no longer approve and withdraw funding.
This has happened many times before and will continue to happen in high risk countries, ' notes one industry specialist.