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UK falling behind in race for sustainability

CIVILS 2002: Greening the infrastructure - Engineers have a vital role to play in greening the UK's infrastructure, but the vast majority are abdicating this responsibility, says Friends of the Earth executive director Charles Secrett.

Only the most extreme environmentalist would claim that capital development and technological advance should be halted. For society to function you need power, transport, industrial infrastructure, housing. . . The argument isn't about whether construction and engineering are necessary, but what types of projects are realised and how.'

As executive director of the UK's most prominent green campaign group, Friends of the Earth (FoE), Charles Secrett has built his reputation in opposition to government policy on issues such as water, nuclear energy and waste, road construction and waste incineration. He stood against Turkey's proposed Ilisu Dam and Heathrow Terminal Five, and is protesting Associated British Ports' Dibden Bay port expansion and the government's proposed overhaul of the planning regime.

Secrett's intellectual poise combined with direct action protest techniques makes him a formidable adversary. In the eyes of many, he is extreme environmentalism personified.

But Secrett is vehemently in favour of progress. One of his prime frustrations is that government and industry are not more active in adopting innovative technologies and practices.

FoE is pushing a tough sustainability agenda that can only be delivered by dramatically improving efficiency: it wants to see the depletion of environmental resources halted. This can be achieved not just without halting economic growth, but has potential to stimulate growth, Secrett insists. FoE also wants resources and wealth to be distributed more equitably.

Key sustainability targets, says Secrett, are to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases by 90% over the next 50 years. Up to 80% of construction waste should be recycled and 90% of domestic waste recycled or composted. FoE is pushing government to set mandatory 70% targets for all UK waste by 2010.

Meeting these targets calls for a radical overhaul of UK attitudes to design, manufacturing and construction. But the knowledge and techniques that industry needs to meet them are available - and the evolution of technology dictates it will become increasingly possible to deliver them.

Cutting transport related carbon dioxide emissions calls for more efficient petrol cars and fuel cell technology, both viable in the short term, in combination with an effective, reliable, multimodal public transport system.

'We need a transport infrastructure that gives people choice, whether you own a car or not.'

Government transport policy is on target, says Secrett, but the political and financial backing needed is not being delivered.

FoE is pushing government to institute energy saving targets for new buildings. Prefabricated structures, built to exacting tolerances out of thermally efficient materials, should not be the exception but the rule, as in Sweden or Norway. FoE's focus on environmental performance, from construction through operation to demolition, is comparable to the focus on 'whole life cost' set out by Sir John Egan in his critique of the construction industry Rethinking Construction.

Annual increases in the landfill levy should be raised from £1 per annum to £4, says Secrett, with money hypothecated back into the waste management industry to stimulate reclamation and re-use. While he would like to see tougher controls on the quarrying industry, Secrett is anticipating that introduction of the aggregates tax in April will stimulate demand for recycled construction materials.

Industry needs an initial push to launch it in a new direction. In the case of transport that impetus must be in the form of government spending and in the case of waste, it is stringent application of the 'polluter pays' principle.

Free market enterprise should be galvanising firms in other sectors to action, however.

The UK nuclear industry should be gearing up to tackle the vast decommissioning, clean up and waste management workload, estimated in the US alone at £135bn. And the UK should be acting now to avoid being eclipsed by Scandinavia, northern Europe and the US as a major player in renewable energy generation. Its declining offshore oil and gas industry provides a rich store of the engineering and manufacturing expertise needed for turbines in a marine environment.

'One of the greatest risks facing the UK is that of missed opportunities, ' says Secrett.

INFOPLUS Charles Secrett will be the keynote speaker at Civils 2002 on Thursday 13 June.

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