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Comment | Leading the climate change

Keith Clake

The industrial revolution was led by engineers, but they were more than innovative, practical people – they were entrepreneurs, developers, lobbyists, financiers, contractors, designers, manufacturers and project managers all rolled into one. They led!

Globally we now teach and practice engineeringas a highly dependable, highly competent profession answering the client’s questions – the UK excels in this. So why the question “can engineers lead again”? Change means disruption, risk, winners and losers, uncertainty and at best inconvenience. Climate change is the reason.The science of climate change is exactly that– science. The science is there, the choices are stark, and the scientific community has recognised great science is tremendous but that communicating complex issues to the rest of us is equally essential.

There is a difference between sustainability ingeneral – the ethical issues of poverty, equality, bio-diversity, social stability, protection from weather etcetera, all of which are pressing and valid ethical questions – and climate change.

Climate change is a conditioner on all of these.The choice the science has established for us is between business as usual and a resulting 4°plus world, or a radical and urgent transition to a low carbon economy aiming at a 2°C or less change in the average global temperature. The former, accelerates negatively issues such as food supply, economic and political stability, flooding and heat waves. All will get worse and many trends will compound the adverse effects of other issues.

Already the increase in the frequency and degree of extreme weather events are visible and we are barely at the foothills of the changes we can expect, even if we achieve mitigating to a 2°C world.

The good news is that 2015 saw two amazing landmarks, the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the UN Framework on Climate Change COP21 Accord. The former set out 17 goals to protect the planet, end poverty and ensure prosperity for all, each with targets to be achieved over the next 15 years. This is less time than wehave been ruminating on the third runway.

The latter is of course the Paris Accord, the culmination of over two years’ intensive diplomatic activity. An amazing agreement which any engineer who has been involved in more than a five-way international joint venture will recognise. The world has agreed a business as usual approach is unacceptable and by 2050 we need to have radically reduced the carbon intensity of the world economy.

Failure to do so imperils not only achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals but reverses the progress made to date. That’s the context for the question “can engineers lead again”. Can we design and implement the expected $30trillion of urban infrastructure needed globally with radically different carbon intensity.

It means implementing learning cycles that are in months not decades, as occurred in the Industrial Revolution. It means a more diverse set of skills. It means designing with an open carbon budget as well as a capex budget.

Above all it means the next decade is a fantastic opportunity for engineers to lead!

  • Keith Clarke is an ICE vice president and chair of Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon

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