Civil engineers must urgently prepare themselves for difficult conversations with those procuring and using the infrastructure they design and deliver if they are to take ownership of their role in addressing the climate emergency.
That was the resounding message from the launch of ICE’s annual State of the Nation report, which this year identifies six key ways that civil engineers can act on climate change.
Launching the report a few weeks ahead of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, President Rachel Skinner explained how civil engineers can take ownership of the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced.
“It is time that we do things differently. And we have to start today,” she said, acknowledging that changing behaviors and influencing the client, government and infrastructure end users ‘to do the right thing’ will most likely be difficult but essential.
“Taking ownership of the climate challenge [for infrastructure] is a transformational turning point for civil engineering,” she said.
Civil engineers need to do things differently
Skinner was joined at the launch by a panel of industry leaders who all backed the call for civil engineers to do things differently.
Aecom director of strategic advisory Shamit Gaiger called for engineers to “demand better outcomes”, to always question “why we are doing something” and to change the collective mindset from being proud of physical assets to being proud of better outcomes.
She added: “Low carbon is no longer something that is ‘nice to have’, it is necessary. It has to be part of every project and every decision we take as engineers.”
Gaiger added that clients, and client briefs can sometimes cloud the end goal, and so it is up to engineers to ensure that they question everything they are designing and building to ensure that the outcome is the best product for the end user and the planet.
Time to change our, and users', behaviour
University of Strathclyde Chancellor’s Fellow Jannik Giesekam said that to achieve those changes, engineers will have to “get over the fear of being a pain in the ar*e” and have “necessary, but difficult conversations”.
“We need to retire the poster-boy image of an engineer in a top hat stood in front of a major piece of infrastructure and move towards an industry that celebrates better outcomes,” Giesekam added.
“Now is the time to start thinking about changing the behaviour of ourselves, but also of the people using the infrastructure we are designing.”
Building on the same theme, National Infrastructure Commission commissioner Bridget Rosewell said that to enable change, the industry must “build in the capacity to explain [the need for better outcomes] to other engineers, to government and to end users”.
ICE President’s Future Leader Kaye Pollard – who works at Mott MacDonald – called for civil engineers to approach the climate challenge “with the same urgency as we would approach a disaster”.
Pollard cited the speed at which engineers worked to help create Nightingale hospitals during the first lockdown as an example of what can be done when a task is treated as an emergency.
But Pollard, who is also an ICE Carbon Champion, also highlighted the challenge ahead.
“I’ve designed a structure that requires the same amount of carbon emissions to build as 85 years of my personal carbon footprint – more than the rest of my lifetime,” she said. “As engineers, the scale of emissions we have power over is absolutely enormous, and there is a responsibility that comes with that power.”
Six ways for civil engineers to act on climate change
In its State of the Nation 2021 report, ICE reviewed the UK’s infrastructure carbon footprint and assessed the membership’s readiness to take on the carbon challenge.
In response to these key findings, ICE has developed a practical guide of six key actions that members ought to take if they want to make immediate change.
- This is an emergency – treat it like one
- Bring carbon into every conversation
- Understand and influence end users
- Design and build for the ‘right’ outcomes
- Strive for creative solutions
- Be responsible for resilience
“These actions reach beyond reducing carbon. They aim to encourage others to make more significant interventions to reduce carbon emissions in the built environment,” Skinner explained.
Engineers don’t only need to rethink the infrastructure they provide; they also need to offer alternatives. Civil engineers should be providing infrastructure that actively encourages a shift to low-carbon behaviour.
At the official launch event, members of the State of the Nation 2021 Project Board discussed key findings from the report and why each call for action is so important to act upon.
Progress to date
“We have achieved a 23% carbon reduction between 2010 and 2017,” explained Dr Jannik Giesekam.
The bulk of the decrease in carbon emissions is down to the energy and waste sectors while the transport sector has seen a 3.9% increase.
Engineers have made substantial progress on the operational side: how civil engineers build and maintain our infrastructure systems. However, carbon emissions generated by infrastructure users have only slightly reduced, and capital carbon from newly built infrastructure has drastically increased.
“If we want to stay on track and deliver on the UK’s net-zero target, we need to pay more attention to how we use infrastructure and the role of civil engineers in influencing the user’s behaviour,” Jannik explained.
ICE has put decarbonisation and climate resilience on top of its agenda.
The Carbon Champions project is creating a vibrant community of low-carbon practice. It serves as a place to exchange best practice and test new ideas and methodologies.
On the resilience front, ICE is committed to working with the International Coalition for Sustainable Infrastructure to engage with the engineering community global climate action and resilience building.
Speakers at the SoN launch event:
• Rachel Skinner, ICE President and Chair of State of the Nation 2021 Project Board
• Dr Jannik
Giesekam, Chancellor’s Fellow, University of Strathclyde
• Kaye Pollard, ICE President’s Future Leader 2020-21
Gaiger, Director of Strategic Advisory, Consultancy,
Rosewell CBE, Commissioner, National Infrastructure Commission
Reports from the regional workshops - 4 August 2021
As part of State of the Nation’s research process, ICE held a series of virtual workshops across the UK regions, starting this month. Find out more about how they went and the discussion points raised below.