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Sustainable argument

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According to a study by WWF this week, the planet is heading for environmental disaster.

As guardians of the built and natural environment, civil engineers must not only take notice but also shoulder the blame.

After all, it is only a week since the ICE's State of the Nation report staked a claim for billions of pounds of 'vital' investment - in eight airports, five major road schemes and a desalination plant in east London - under the sustainable development banner.

Meanwhile the WWF report highlights the disastrous scale of the world's resource consumption. Overall, it concludes, the earth's resources are being used 25% faster than they can be renewed.

To be honest, I struggle to bridge the intellectual gulf between the two documents, both of which appear to put the need for sustainable development at their core.

According to the WWF research, the UK is one of the worst offenders with an 'ecological footprint' - the area required to sustain a person - of 5.6ha, nearly three times the world average of 2.2ha.

It calculates that the earth's 'biocapacity' per person is only equivalent to 1.8ha, so if everyone in the world lived as we do in the UK, it points out, we would need three planets.

It is a scary proposition and one which arguably goes straight into the 'too big to worry about' problem basket for most of us.

And it is possible to pick holes in the study and play down the signicance of the research.

But it is surely impossible to write it off completely. Equally, while it is possible for us to argue that the problem goes beyond the capacity of civil engineers to deal with, the profession cannot dismiss its responsibilities - or pretend a sustainability grade C is acceptable.

So what are we really doing to help control the rate of resource consumption? While we talk a good game on sustainable development, the reality is that we are doing very little beyond talking and hoping.

Yes, civil engineers have woken up over the last decade to the need for - and the bene ts of - an approach to design that takes account of the wider environmental, social and resource impact. The concept of environmental impact assessment, of whole life costing and resource management has been embraced.

We now work hard to reduce construction waste and to design with maintenance in mind. We have developed new materials and techniques to reduce the amount and cost of raw materials consumed.

But the fact is - as the WWF's study points out - we are just not thinking big enough. While cost and pro ts are valid drivers, we are just not going to really turn the tide without a huge shift in thinking. Thinking that must come from civil engineers.

OK. It's not just civil engineers that are letting the planet down.

The reality is that the whole of engineering is guilty of failure on a grand scale.

After all, the engineering profession's role is to turn the scienti ally possible into the socially practical. Its purpose is to invent, solve, innovate and improve for the benet of mankind. Unfortunately, so far, engineering talent has pushed forward but down an unsustainable path.

The other side to taking the blame is shouldering the responsibility. Only when the State of the Nation report takes into account the state of the planet will we be making progress.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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