I write this with the voice of Greta Thunberg ringing in my ears.
Rachel skinner crop
This articulate young woman has captured the zeitgeist of our teenage generation, the children who are growing up alongside the ever-growing evidence of climate change. She is utterly unimpressed that the “adults” haven’t yet spotted (or have chosen not to notice) that “our house is on fire”.
In Greta’s world view, we are some of those adults. And she is far from alone in her views.
I’ve found myself looking through this lens in recent weeks, thinking about what we do and the contribution we might make in future. I don’t count myself as an ardent climate change activist, but I am proud to call myself a civil engineer, geographer and mum. For me, across all of these dimensions, 2019 has seen us start to march to the beat of a much louder, and more urgent, carbon drum. It is calling us to action.
New transport strategy
In last month’s New Civil Engineer, I outlined my views about the positive an d pivotal nature of the Department for Transport’s new strategy for the future of urban mobility. It gives us nine new guiding principles around which we can focus, including the “essential” transition to zero emission vehicles. More broadly, the National Infrastructure Assessment is completely clear about the need to build on the “quiet revolution” in low carbon energy sources over the next decade to deliver more than half of UK electricity and seek 100% electric vehicle sales by 2030.
The newly formed Infrastructure Commission for Scotland proves that the debate on the potential of infrastructure to deliver a genuinely inclusive, low carbon future is very much alive.
These are clearly great steps in the right direction towards a lower carbon future.
But are they sufficient to put out Greta’s fire in time?
No doubt we could do more. As future-focused 21st century civil engineers – defined in a truly modern way to embrace the latest digital and adjacent skills as well as the well-established core – we could turn this urgent challenge to an opportunity. We could bring our creativity and ingenuity to bear, working closely with others, not only to fend off or adapt to climate-driven change but to mitigate and reduce it wholesale.
We could do this for new investment that achieves net zero carbon, finding more ways to decarbonise long-standing infrastructure systems at pace – across transport, water, energy, waste and buildings.
We could find more ways to seek productivity- and carbon-led outcomes that are mutually reinforcing. We might use this newly elevated public platform (even as it burns) to redefine ourselves as utterly relevant, highly visible and newly valuable to the wider world, for all the right reasons. We know we shape the world and improve countless lives – maybe our greatest contribution yet could be to “direct the great sources of power in nature”, to use Tredgold’s words long-immortalised in our Royal Charter, to address the climate-led challenges that lie ahead.
As civil engineers and informed members of the public, as parents, carers and stewards of the generations to come – the time is now.
- Rachel Skinner is an ICE vice president