Author: Rachel Skinner, Executive Director, WSP UK & President of the Institution of CIVIL Engineers (ICE) for 2020–21
December 22, 2021
It was an easy choice to choose climate action as my ICE presidency theme. I’m an engineer, having trained first as a geographer. My background is infrastructure, people and planet. So climate change – with a focus on net zero carbon and climate resilience – is a priority topic, both personally and professionally. But, until recently, infrastructure sectors (energy, transport and buildings, digital water, waste and digital) were able ignore or treat climate effects as an add-on. We have a greater focus on economic growth and profit than we have on social and environmental issues. This mindset is now a major cause of many problems around the world. But it’s the way public infrastructure and the environment is planned and built that must change – we must change. That means engineers, city and municipal planners, construction professionals – all of us have to adapt in order to make a major difference in the years ahead.
It is time to show commitment
To reach a net zero balance by 2050, we must cut the total carbon emissions connected with today’s infrastructure systems in half by 2030. This will allow us to slow down the pace of climate change. Even if we do this, we can still expect decades of worsening climate. Therefore, we must also build greater resilience to deal with more frequent extreme weather events around the globe: storms floods fires droughts and more.
Climate worry and climate talk must be transformed into climate action.
This is urgent. As billions of people depend on them every day, our existing infrastructure systems are still highly carbon-intensive. Today’s decisions about whether we build, what we build, where we build and how we build are key to build-stage carbon impact, but we must also take into account the carbon emissions linked to the existence, operation and use of infrastructure over many generations. We already have the tools, ideas, and know-how necessary to begin to address the climate crisis. Climate worry and climate talk must be transformed into climate action.
And none of this is something I would do if I were an activist. It’s simply the most responsible thing to do, given the scale of our collective challenge. For a better understanding of their future visions, you only need time with them or their friends. We have to listen to the next generation – and to 70 years of climate science that already lies behind us. Our job as engineers is to influence and bring down carbon emissions, to make it possible. There is no time for waste.
New carbon ‘lens’ needed
We have to rethink how we approach infrastructure design to be more ‘carbon conscious’ in everything. This is a new lens for some clients, along with other critical drivers such as quality and safety, productivity, social inclusion, and cost. The key principle is that the sooner a project’s carbon awareness begins, the greater the opportunity to build value through long-term carbon savings. This can often be done without additional cost or risk. We need to ask the difficult questions about whether ‘new-builds’ are required or whether existing assets can have an extended life. It is important to design with carbon in mind so that the amount of traditional concrete and steel used can be reduced. This will benefit both carbon dioxide and cost. We must eventually eliminate carbon emissions entirely. However, in practice, we need to be able to quantify and then minimize total carbon emissions throughout their lives, before mitigating, or offsetting any residual impacts.
This last piece is evolving fast – it’s also widely misunderstood – but it’s crucial. We need to design offsets in a direct and accurate manner, just like we mitigate other effects in our everyday technical design practice. The good news is there’s a range of nature-based solutions that work with carbon capture tech that will become more commonplace, boosting credibility around net zero client work.
Generational pressure is a positive thing
The generation coming into the workplace has grown up with climate change so there’s no uncertainty phase that held earlier generations back. There are pent-up frustrations from this group that we – as today’s responsible adults – still haven’t addressed climate change with real urgency, underpinned by fairness and social justice. No matter their role, young and emerging professionals must use all their power, knowledge, influence, and power to push the carbon Infrastructure agenda to the top for all of our sakes. Personally, I believe it will succeed. But there’s no more time to waste. We must act now and not wait for the time to pass.