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The challenge: moving from rhetoric to real meaning

Industry comment by Keith Clarke, Construction Industry Council chairman and Atkins chief executive

At the climate change talks in December, world leaders will debate, and hopefully decide, on intractable targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions. They will, in effect, start to describe a global low-carbon economy. The problem will be turning the rhetoric into something that has real meaning.

At the moment thinking about a low-carbon economy is a fantastic intellectual challenge − it’s also a great way of selling books. The problem is where the book sits − in the engineering science section, the political section or the fiction section?

The real challenge

So this is the real challenge. We must take an interesting and complex problem and turn it into the mundane, the ordinary, the everyday. And perhaps that’s where the big picture sometimes isn’t that helpful. What we really need is a detailed step-by-step guide to sorting out the issues that climate change will bring. Find a problem and you’ll find the solution in the index.

We need the intelligent software, the design codes, the laws. Some are coming, some are here. But a computer programme or a law is only as good as the data going into it. That’s where we come in.

Ask yourselves − is carbon yet an imperative or is it a selling point? Is it a way of branding your business or is it defining your business?

“Is carbon yet an imperative or is it a selling point? Is it a way of branding your business or is it defining your business?”

In a way I almost disagree with myself when I mark carbon out as something upon which we should focus.

By highlighting it as a different problem to others you almost say it’s an optional issue.

Do we talk about design resistance to seismic forces or wind loads in the same way? Of course we don’t and the reason is obvious. The law says you must design a structure so it’s got the best chance of staying upright in an earthquake or, if necessary, withstanding the force of a hurricane.

So why is carbon different? Why is getting a BREEAM excellent rating seen as a badge of honour − perhaps the mark of a client that is preparing to pay over the top for a building? The reason is because carbon is seen as the poor cousin of all design factors − the fallout isn’t local − it’s global and invisible.

As long as this remains the case zero carbon will never come at zero cost − it’s a simple case of economies of scale. The more it becomes an everyday commodity the cheaper it becomes to deal with.

“By highlighting it as a different problem to others you almost say it’s an optional issue.”

So the challenge facing us all is to work out ways of turning carbon into wind loading, into seismic resistance − our challenge is to not regard it as something special.

You will no longer be just doing design − you’ll be doing carbon critical design, but you won’t even notice.

How can we achieve this? The key is articulation: convincing yourself and your staff that it’s just an other part of the day job; convincing clients it’s not about the badge, it’s about being sensible to create a saleable building, a cleaner railway, a more intelligent traffic system; and it’s about forcing your supply chain to greater efforts − you will no longer accept all the carbon they’re trying to pass on to you.

Staying in business

We all face similar challenges and here’s another one to focus the mind: staying in business beyond the next 40 years. I pick this date as that’s when the UK must have cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% compared to 1990 levels.

As climate change is inevitable, so is more legislation. If you’re not already planning ahead − putting in the right training programmes and the right ways of working, it will not be long before you’re struggling to keep up. And if you are, your staff will already be leaving in droves because company X around the corner is much more exciting. Over to you.

How will you meet the challenge?

We want to hear your thoughts and case studies about how you intend to design construct or operate infrastructure in a low carbon future.

Who must take the lead and what will it take for the current low carbon rhetoric to have real meaning?

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