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Crunching Carbon | COP21 deal triggers engineering revolution

Ban Ki Moon

The COP21 deal late last year has been heralded a historic breakthrough in combating climate change. Now civil engineers must take the lead and revolutionise infrastructure delivery.

Days of frank, and at times bitter, talks at the United Nations (UN) Climate Conference in Paris last December ended with 195 countries signing a breakthrough agreement on climate change; a commitment to to keep global temperature rise to below 2ºC this century.

“The Paris Agreement is a monumental triumph for people and our planet,” said UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon in a Tweet, immediately following its adoption. “We have entered a new era of global cooperation on one of the most complex issues ever to confront humanity.”

It was, in the words of ICE vice president and long-time climate campaigner Keith Clarke, “a stunning agreement”.

Ban Ki Moon

Ban Ki Moon

Ban Ki Moon (second left) celebrates the COP21 agreement

“The fact that the vast majority of global governments have agreed an outline objective to keep global warming below two degrees this century is phenomenal,” he says. ”“Now we need a revolution in the structure of engineering,”

The main aim of the Paris agreement is to keep a global temperature rise this century well below that 2ºC and to drive efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels.

The 1.5ºC limit is considered a significantly safer defence line against the worst impacts of a changing climate.

But the COP21 deal also aimed at strengthening the world’s ability to cope with the impacts of the climate change that does take place.

Role of civil engineers

And civil engineers now have a massive role to play in helping politicians like Ban Ki Moon and UK prime minister David Cameron – who heralded the announcement as a “huge step forward in securing the future of the planet” - to stick to their guns with support and solutions.

And first and foremost, a united front is needed on the maths.

“A new standard has been set and we have to agree we have a new problem,” states Clarke. Engineers have to unite and accept that that is what this now is – maths and science. Facts and analysis. it’s as simple as that.”

Do the science

It is a fact that Earth’s 2015 surface temperatures were the warmest since modern record keeping began in 1880 according to independent analyses by space agency NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Globally-averaged temperatures in 2015 broke the previous record set in 2014 by 0.13ºC. Only once before, in 1998, has the new record been greater than the old record by this much.


The Earth’s climate has changed throughout history. In the last 650,000 years there have been seven cycles of glacial advance and retreat, with the abrupt end of the last ice age about 7,000 years ago marking the beginning of the modern climate era — and of human civilisation. Most of these climate changes are attributed to very small variations in Earth’s orbit that change the amount of solar energy our planet receives.

But that’s not the issue now. And Clarke has no truck with those who claim otherwise.

He points to the 97% of climate scientists who now agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are “very likely” to have been due to human activities, and the fact that most of the leading scientific organisations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.

Climate change – fact not theory

If you’re a climate-denier you are now in very, very select club.

Earth-orbiting satellites and other technological advances have enabled scientists to see the big picture, collecting many different types of information about our planet and its climate on a global scale. This body of data, collected over many years, reveals the signals of a changing climate.

CO2 graph

NASA charting carbon

Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are at historic highs

The heat-trapping nature of carbon dioxide and other gases was demonstrated in the mid-19th century. Their ability to affect the transfer of infrared energy through the atmosphere is the scientific basis under which of many instruments flown on NASA air and spacecraft. There is no question that increased levels of greenhouse gases must cause the Earth to warm in response.

Ice cores drawn from Greenland, Antarctica, and from tropical mountain glaciers show that the Earth’s climate responds to changes in greenhouse gas levels. They also show that in the past, large changes in climate have happened very quickly, geologically-speaking: in tens of years, not in millions or even thousands. The evidence is compelling.

Sea level rise

Global sea level rose about 170mm in the last century. The rate in the last decade, however, is nearly double that of the last century.

Global temperature rise

All three major global surface temperature reconstructions show that Earth has warmed since 1880. Most of this warming has occurred since the 1970s, with the 20 warmest years having occurred since 1981 and with all 10 of the warmest years occurring in the past 12 years.

Shrinking ice sheets

The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have decreased in mass. Data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment show that Greenland lost 150km3 to 250km3 of ice per year between 2002 and 2006, while Antarctica lost about 152km3 of ice between 2002 and 2005.

So the science shows that human activities are the cause and also that cutting – or at least controlling – carbon dioxide and other emissions is critical to containing climate change.

UK leads?

So who is leading? At the COP21 negotiations Cameron claimed – with some plausibility – that the UK is already leading the way. The government has a legally-binding commitment to achieve an 80% reduction in its carbon emissions by 2050 under the Climate Change Act. It has also committed to halving UK emissions by 2027, relative to 1990. That is a little over a decade away.

It is clearly time for action. And the infrastructure sector must play a lead role. The 2013 Infrastructure Carbon Review highlighted the fact that, while there are no sector-specific targets, the sector does have full control over almost one sixth – 16% - of total UK emissions and influence over a further 37%. That’s because emissions associated with infrastructure accounted for 515M.t  CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per year in 2010, or 53% of the UK’s total carbon footprint of 981M.t CO2e/year (to put that in context the US has a carbon footprint of more than 7,800M.t CO2e/year).

And that’s today. By 2050 emissions associated with infrastructure will account for over 90% of the target. We are increasingly part of the problem, not the solution. And that has to change.

“Decarbonisation is fundamentally an engineering problem,” insists Clarke. “We do not want to be subservient to taxes and other mechanisms that chase the problem rather than leading it.”

So civil engineers really do have a role to play. And it involves a fundamental rethink of what matters when it comes to defining and delivering our projects.

Engineering revolution

“This is a revolution in the structure of engineering,” asserts Clarke. “Whole-life CO2e should be the primary parameter by which we decide what gets built and if it gets built.”

That goes for everything from roads and railways to cities and power stations.

“A more complex question needs to be answered; the sort of question that has not been answered since the first engineers became entrepreneurs,” says Clarke. “And this requires us to change our learning cycle from decades to months. We need evolution of technology as seen in the aerospace and automotive industries.

We need to be much more active, with the government, saying ‘we have these solutions to decarbonise different sectors’

Simon Price, Ramboll


“We need a knowledge-based design process, which building information modelling could allow. And all our projects need to have a totex primary calculation rather than capex.”

Ramboll head of environment Simon Price agrees that now is the time for engineers to act.

“The [COP21] agreement was pretty surprising,” he says. ”I am optimistic. It sets out an agenda that will deliver new policies but there is a massive obligation for engineers to take much more of a lead. We should not be waiting for someone to say ‘we need these kind of projects’. We need to be much more active, with the government, saying ‘we have these solutions to decarbonise different sectors’.

Planning cities

“As well as generating energy in less carbon intensive ways, we need to use less energy by planning cities in ways that don’t require as much powered transport, for example. Civil engineers should be a more powerful voice in planning. There is a big role for civil engineers making a wider case than they usually do.”

Mott MacDonald global head of climate resilience Ian Allison agrees: “That there was a global agreement to do something meaningful was very good news. To achieve a 2ºC limit we are going to require a culture change. As engineers, we have to get out and talk about the issues. The engineering community is not used to putting its head above the parapet. We have to be less concerned about talking about the problem even if we don’t have all the answers.”

Are we doing enough?

That is what we need – or at least what Clarke and other like-minded thinkers believe we need. So what are we actually doing? Three years on from the Infrastructure Carbon Review, it could be argued, not very much.

Certain clients, and in particular Anglian Water, are taking the lead, but how many are following? A major boost is coming next month with PAS2080, a publicly available standard for quantifying whole life carbon in economic infrastructure.

New carbon measurement standard

Costain group carbon manager Damien Canning is on the technical advisory panel for the standard, and he believes it will be a step change moment when it is launched next month.

“PAS 2080 is going to be a comprehensive guidance document that provides a set of rules around boundary setting, data sources, data integrity, how you should be reporting and monitoring performance,” Canning told a New Civil Engineer webinar last year.

“I’m hoping that, when that launches, it will force everyone’s attention on to this whole-life issue and understanding what they can do to drive performance – and also improve their chances of winning work,” he explained.

Learning from the Dutch

An approach that is attracting much interest is the Netherlands’ CO2 Performance Ladder. Used by a host of public sector clients including the highways agency and rail agency Prorail, it assesses how well firms succeed in driving out whole-life carbon from processes and projects, rewarding high performers with a “virtual benefit” – allowing them to add up to 10% to their tender prices without losing competitiveness.

“It’s about changing the structure of the system so you have that advantage. I think if we had that system in this country, everybody would be designing zero carbon train stations,” said Canning.

Carbon equals cash

The Infrastructure Carbon Review also offered another reason for the industry to reduce carbon emissions – greed. The report makes clear that reductions in carbon often go hand in hand with reductions in cost, partly because carbon reduction acts as a proxy for resource efficiency and partly because pursuing a low carbon agenda stimulates innovation. The report pointed out that if current low carbon best practices were adopted across the sector, they would deliver a £1.5bn benefit.

Energy the big opportunity

While the industry can – and should – strive to cut carbon by every means possible, cutting carbon from energy generation remains a huge opportunity. A real push on carbon pricing – alongside action on subsidies for fossil fuels – is probably needed.

“The time is right to introduce carbon prices around the world, as well as to pursue complementary measures like reform for fossil fuel subsidies, which act like negative carbon prices,” says Lord Stern, co-chair of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate.

But even without such actions, moves are being made.

Drax Eco Store


Drax power station is being converted from coal to biomass

In January, hot on the heels of the historic international climate agreement in Paris, more than 500 global investors gathered at the United Nations to begin mobilising the trillions of dollars needed to catalyse the global clean energy transition.

“Investors are better positioned than ever before to address climate risks and seize the economic opportunities presented by clean energy,” says Mindy Lubber, president of investor/evironmentalist coalition Ceres and director of its Investor Network on Climate Risk (INCR), the US network of pension funds and asset managers working to address the financial risks of climate change.

Investment shift

“Ultimately, global investment portfolios need to shift far more capital to low-carbon business activity.”

A range of heavyweight investors used the meeting to set their targets for the years ahead.

Dutch pension fund ABP pledged to quadruple clean energy investments to €5bn (£3.8bn) by 2020 and reduce the carbon footprint of its £76bn listed equity portfolio by 25% by doubling its investments in sustainable companies.

French pension fund ERAFP said it would pressurise big stock market listed corporations to set clear targets for switching away from fossil fuel dependent energy sources and towards 100% renewable electricity supplies.

Here in the UK, the Green Investment Bank is already taking a lead role.

Green Investment Bank

The UK’s Green Investment Bank (GIB) was launched in November 2012. With £3.8bn of government funding, it is the first bank of its kind in the world. It is a “for profit” bank, whose mission is to accelerate the UK’s transition to a greener economy, and to create an enduring institution, operating independently of government.

In the three years since its launch it has backed projects with a total value of more than £10bn, partnering with almost 100 co-investors. Its projected portfolio return is now over 10%.

Investments range from a £306.5M commitment to a £1.2bn offshore wind farm off the coast of Brighton, to a £6.3M Green Loan to finance the installation of 10,000 LED streetlights in Glasgow.

In its three years of operation to date it has mobilised £10bn of funding.

And civil engineers are leading efforts to make this investment pay.

“Energy production has to go away from reliance on fossil fuels, but renewable energy has challenges to be available on demand. We need energy when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing,” says Mott MacDonald global head of climate resilience Ian Allison.

“We might see refinement of solar panels; carbon capture and storage – engineering advances need to be made,” he says. “New technology is being developed – such as the way solar photovoltaics have come down in price – but there is a long way to go.”

And he stresses that getting a proper price for carbon to use in benefit to cost ratios for new energy projects is crucial. “A culture change and government support are needed to encourage the energy sector away from fossil fuels,” he says.

A culture change and government support are needed to encourage the energy sector away from fossil fuels

Ian Allison, Mott MacDonald


Aecom UK director of power and industrial consents Richard Lowe agrees: “Engineers are willing and able to help. The technology is in formative stages but it comes down to having adequate support.

“In the UK we have incentivised nuclear new build, and there is also a push towards small reactors. We need to decrease the cost of offshore wind and increase the deployment of solar and tidal energy. Opportunities have been identified and we need a portfolio of options.

Incentivising carbon technology

“A combination of technological improvement and subsidy is needed. We need to see how we can incentivise low carbon technology without overheating the sector,” he explains.

Renewable Energy Association senior policy analyst Frank Gordon believes the energy sector should aim to be  almost entirely carbon-free.

“The electricity sector is almost 25% low carbon now, but we need to go further. In the long-term we should be aiming for 90% to 95%,” he says. “The rest of the world needs to do it as well, so if we can adapt, then there will be expertise and jobs to export. There is a real opportunity for civil engineers – China and India have massive renewables targets,” he adds.

Political support

But again, the need to change requires political support. “The biggest barrier is lack of political will. At the moment renewables can’t compete without government support,” he says.

Price says that cannot be allowed to be an excuse.

“The key thing is to be much more vocal and hold policy makers to account when things don’t make sense,” he says.

And he is optimistic for the future. “I have the sense this is the end of the first stage of tackling climate change and the start of the second stage, where we get some real impact from a unified programme of works. Engineers can play a big role.”

Paris Agreement explained

The Paris Agreement and the outcomes of the UN climate conference (COP21) cover the areas identified as essential for a landmark conclusion:

  • Mitigation – reducing emissions fast enough to achieve the temperature goal
  • A transparency system and global stocktake – accounting for climate action
  • Adaptation – strengthening ability of countries to deal with climate impacts
  • Loss and damage – strengthening ability to recover from climate impacts
  • Support – including finance, for nations to build clean, resilient futures


The new agreement establishes the principle that future national climate action plans will be no less ambitious than existing ones, which means that the 188 existing climate action plans provide a firm foundation for higher ambition.

Countries will submit updated climate plans – called nationally determined contributions (NDCs) – every five years, thereby steadily increasing their ambition in the long-term.


All countries will submit adaptation communications, in which they may detail their adaptation priorities, support needs and plans. Developing countries will receive increased support for adaptation actions and the adequacy of this support will be assessed.

Loss and damage

The existing Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage will be significantly strengthened.

Transparency and global stock-take

The agreement includes a robust transparency framework for action and support. The framework will provide clarity about countries’ mitigation and adaptation actions, as well as the provision of support. At the same time, it recognises that Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States have special circumstances.

The agreement includes a global stocktake starting in 2023 to assess the collective progress towards the goals of the agreement. The stocktake will be done every five years.

The agreement includes a compliance mechanism, overseen by a committee of experts that operates in a non-punitive way.


Countries will work to define a clear roadmap for ratcheting up climate finance to £68.3bn by 2020. International cooperation on climate-safe technologies and building capacity in the developing world to address climate change are also significantly strengthened under the new agreement.

Signing the Paris Agreement

Following the adoption of the Paris Agreement by the COP (Conference of the Parties), it will be deposited at the United Nations in New York and be opened for one year for signature on 22 April.

The agreement will enter into force after 55 countries that account for at least 55% of global emissions have deposited their instruments of ratification.


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