Addressing the climate crisis in the infrastructure sector

&nbsp Author: Rachel Skinner, Executive Director, WSP UK & President of the Institution of CIVIL

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Author: Rachel Skinner, Executive Director, WSP UK & President of the Institution of CIVIL Engineers (ICE) for 2020–21


December 22, 2021

Choosing climate action as the theme of my ICE presidency was an obvious choice. I’m an engineer, having trained first as a geographer. My background is infrastructure, people, planet and places. So climate change – with a focus on net zero carbon and climate resilience – is a priority topic, both personally and professionally. Yet until very recently, the infrastructure sectors (energy and also transport, buildings, digital, water and waste) have been able to ignore climate impacts or treat them, at best, as an add-on. We have had far greater focus on economic growth and gain as a primary outcome, at the expense of social and environmental aspects. This mindset is now the cause of massive problems worldwide. 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.

Commitment is overdue
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 gives us a chance to slow the pace of climate change. Though even if we achieve this, we can expect decades of a worsening climate ahead of us, so in parallel we must build in better resilience to cope with more frequent extreme weather events across the world: storms, floods, fires, droughts and more.

The key now is turning climate worry and climate talk into climate action

This is urgent. Our existing infrastructure systems remain highly carbon intensive, as they are used and relied upon by billions of people every day. 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 some of the right tools, ideas and know-how to start to address the climate crisis. The key now is turning climate worry and climate talk into climate action.

And I say none of these things from an activist mindset. It’s simply the most responsible thing to do, given the scale of our collective challenge. You only have to spend time with your own children, or their friends, for a sense of how they see the future. We have to listen to the next generation – and to 70 years of climate science that already lies behind us. So our job now, as engineers, is to influence and bring about the slashing of carbon, to deliver the art of the possible. And there is no time to waste.

New carbon ‘lens’ needed
We have to rethink how we approach infrastructure design to be more ‘carbon conscious’ in everything. For some clients this is a fairly new lens to look through, alongside other crucial drivers that remain, such as quality, cost, safety, productivity and social inclusivity. Fundamentally, the earlier in a project lifecycle carbon awareness starts, the greater the chance to build value through longer-term carbon savings, often 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. We need to design with carbon firmly in mind, so that quantities of materials such as traditional concrete and steel can be reduced for the benefit of both cost and carbon dioxide. In time, we must aim to eliminate carbon emissions altogether, but in practice we will need to get into the habit of quantifying and then minimising whole life carbon emissions, before mitigating or offsetting any residual impact.

This last piece is evolving fast – it’s also widely misunderstood – but it’s crucial. Just as we mitigate other impacts in everyday technical design practice, we have to embrace and design in offsets directly and accurately. 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 good 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. Young and emerging professionals, whatever their role, must use their influence, knowledge and power to keep pushing the carbon infrastructure agenda to the top, for all our sakes. I am, personally, hopeful that it will succeed. But there’s no more time to waste. We must start now and not allow ourselves to slip back.

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