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Talking the same language

NCE sat in on a conversation between two top sustainability experts, in which they began by discussing how they first became involved in the subject. Sustainability By Margo Cole  

Professor Charles Ainger is a visiting professor in engineering for sustainable development at University of Cambridge, and last year won the ICE’s George Stephenson Medal. He is also former MWH sustainability development director and is now retained by the company as a consultant on sustainability issues.    

Tania Flasck, is MWH’s sustainability leader. She has a broad range of experience in sustainable development, water and wastewater treatment, including commissioning, design, business development and strategic planning.    

Charles: A lot of people quote some sort of eureka moment when suddenly sustainability all made sense. It was sort of a slow burn for me.  

Tania: I can remember sitting in a lecture at university about pit latrines and how you build them – how you set up sustainable communities and how the cultural aspects are so important. I remember thinking: “That’s what I want to do.”  

Charles: So you did have a sort of eureka moment.  

Tania: I suppose it was. I think my generation feel there’s a lot more onus on us to be “walking the talk”. I feel like the older generation – with exceptions – don’t have that same mentality that I do. I feel guilty if I don’t recycle – truly guilty. Or if I throw food away, I feel awful.  

Charles: I feel guilty because my generation haven’t done enough. We’re leaving it all to do.  When we were first talking about sustainability in the mid 1990s, the issue was just getting the point out – that we need to take climate change seriously. We’re running out of resources, and the planet doesn’t have unlimited capacity. I think people assumed that, when the facts became clear and accepted, change was easy. The biggest development I’ve seen is that the facts are out there and many organisations – quite sincerely – are clear that this is a serious issue, and so now they’re working out how the hell do we actually do it. We’ve shifted from the what to the how. You may not have seen that because you’ve come in at the point where the facts are already out there.    

Tania: My generation is the first generation that’s actually going to see and live with the consequences. If the global temperatures go up a degree or two, the Amazon Rainforest will diminish by up to 70%. Sea level rise is expected to be 1m plus in my lifetime. That’s really worrying. I’m going to live to see that and, more importantly, I’ve got an 18 month old little girl – what’s she going to have to deal with?    

The McKinsey Report [Pathways to a Low Carbon Economy] put a different spin on the challenge for me. It said we have to get more out of every kg of carbon, and it also highlighted how behaviourally we have to make some quite serious changes.    

At the same time, when I looked at that report, I got a lot of hope, because what came across is the fact that the problem is not insurmountable. The technology’s there, the will is there, I think.   

We do have a lot of policy and regulatory framework issues that we have to overcome, but I felt that it was possible. I think there’s been a perception that the technology doesn’t exist, or it’s all too hard, or it’s going to be another 10 or 20 years before we can make the changes necessary. I actually felt like there’s stuff that we can be doing right now. So, although I think there’s a huge challenge there, I feel more optimism that we can do it.    

Charles: I’m also quite optimistic. Infrastructure is 80% of the problem, (In terms of carbon embodied and emitted) so anybody in infrastructure is responsible for more than three quarters of the issue – and that’s us. If you look at a programme to completely change the asset base to be more carbon efficient over 25 to 40 years that’s not impossible. I think we have time. The challenge is that, even though we have time, we have to change what we build from now, because every carbon emitting old technology solution that we build from now on is a double whammy.    

It’s both not made immediate progress, and it’s made things worse for getting back to it later. That for me is the paradox. I think that 30 to 40 years is time, but that doesn’t mean we can wait 10 years before we start. Government action – the trading schemes, carbon pricing, global agreement – is absolutely vital, but if we wait for that to lead us we’re too late. We’ve been collecting examples of projects where we’ve done things differently, and nearly all of them actually involve saving money in whole life cost terms, as well as in carbon. They don’t depend on carbon pricing.    

In the old days the environment wasn’t important, we just did projects. And then environment came along and we said: “We’ve designed this project and now we’ve realised it’s going to have some impacts.” So when we’d done the detailed design, we evaluated impacts. And we then said: “What extra can we do to mitigate those impacts?” I think we were in an impact mitigation compliance mode. And of course, if you only look at impacts at that stage, it’s always going to cost you more money. I think we have a mindset that says that anything to do with sustainability and climate change and environmental improvement is always going to cost more money but that is wrong.   

One example is a treatment works in the UK where they had a cryptosporidium problem, and the client asked us to add an advanced water treatment stage onto the plant to get rid of the bugs. Our guys went to the client and said the problem is not that you want more treatment, the problem is that you want to control the risk of the bug. What we finished up doing – because it was a spring source – was providing protection to the source so the bug couldn’t get into the spring in the first place. What we’d done was change the definition of the problem. We saved 70% of capital cost and there’s virtually zero operating cost and zero carbon emissions.    

Tania: We’re a global organisation;. We have 7,000 employees scattered all over the world, in 34 countries, so we have a wonderful opportunity to grab the best project examples and use them. Australia, for example, has dealt with water shortage issues for centuries. They’ve come up with a really progressive and forward-looking way to deal with that issue of conservation and demand management, and we can learn from that. Equally, some of our flooding work in the UK and the Netherlands is real best practice that we need to better leverage and share with our clients around the world.   

 Let’s just get on with this and stop procrastinating about what’s strategic, what isn’t, whether it’s appropriate or not. Of course it’s appropriate.

Tania Flasck, MWH

Charles: So the answer to the question about whether solutions are global or local is that they’re both. They’ve got to be locally appropriate solutions, but somewhere in the world somebody already has a solution, because they’ve been threatened by the issue earlier.    

What’s missing is the experimental mindset, where you say “what if”. So you take a new idea, and you apply it to a real situation, for a real client, and you do the numbers as best you can. You either decide it was a great idea but it won’t work, so forget about it, or you improve the numbers so you’ve got a better business case than you did before. This is all done before you’ve made any personal commitment to do it wholesale.     

If that first set of numbers was good, then you take it to a small pilot scale – a pilot which involves a little bit more commitment, but not a commitment to accept the change. So if it doesn’t work, you haven’t failed, and the client hasn’t failed. We need to invest money in trying out “what ifs” in as many situations as possible.    

Every utility company ought to do a 2050 masterplan – imagine where the water yields are going to be by then; where the sea levels are going to be by then; how the demographies have changed with populations moving north in response to hotter temperatures; what’s happened to the potentials of technologies. Pretend they’ve got no assets, and work out how they would supply their customers and at what level for 2050. It would turn these high level words – “we’re going to reduce carbon by 80%” – into something real that has meaning on the ground. And every time you plan an investment you could compare it with that plan and see if it’s heading towards it or away from it. At the moment I don’t think it’s real.   

The biggest development I’ve seen is that the facts are out there and many organisations – quite sincerely – are clear that this is a serious issue 

Professor Charles Ainger

Tania: I don’t think that the senior people in the world – in government, in companies, the private sector – really get the urgency yet. It worries me that we’re not moving fast enough. I feel like standing up and saying: “Why do I have to keep convincing you that we need to act?” Let’s just get on with this and stop procrastinating about what’s strategic, what isn’t, whether it’s appropriate or not. Of course it’s appropriate.    

In the film Apollo 13, where they’ve got to get astronauts back from the moon and the oxygen system’s failed, back at headquarters they get all these guys in the room and say: “This is what is on that spaceship, we have to fix this problem.” And of course all the engineers there are saying: “We can’t do it without this, this and this.” But they do. Failure was not an option, and it is not an option for us. This is what we have. We have to apply that kind of mentality to the sustainability debate. It’s a huge challenge, but we can do it. But we’ve really got to have a sense of urgency. We’ve got to get a diverse and passionate group of people in the room and we’ll make it happen.    

Charles: That’s a good source of optimism. My favourite quote is from the guy who ran Apple computers: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”. That contains two key things: One, we can be in control, and two, it all depends on invention and innovation. That is the basis for my sceptical optimism in terms of where we might go.   


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