State of the Nation 2021: how civil engineering can enable low carbon choices

ICE President Rachel Skinner is leading a steering group that will explore solutions that enable more sustainable choices for society.

State of the Nation makes recommendations to ensure the UK has high-performing infrastructure networks that facilitate the quest for net zero.
State of the Nation makes recommendations to ensure the UK has high-performing infrastructure networks that facilitate the quest for net zero.

State of the Nation 2021 will explore and discuss how civil engineers can contribute to the reduction of harmful emissions in the built environment.

In the run-up to its October publication, the report's steering group, led by ICE President Rachel Skinner, will explore successful civil engineering solutions that enable low carbon choices for society.

It will also bring together latest thinking around influencing behaviour to reduce carbon and reach net zero, building primarily on insights and evidence produced through The Carbon Project and Infrastructure Carbon Review.

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By exploring options to influence behaviour to reach net zero, ICE wants to shape the thinking of key industry stakeholders and policymakers responsible for setting future low carbon strategies thereby influencing clients, the private and public sectors, and ultimately the entire supply chain.

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Reports from the regional workshops - 13 July 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.

East Midlands

Greener alternatives need to be competitively priced

The ICE East Midlands State of the Nation workshop was attended by members and key stakeholders.

The pandemic has further changed behaviours and encouraged consideration of further greener choices, such as walking, cycling, or shopping locally.

Most agreed that further information was required to enable greener choices. ‘Carbon footprint’ was mentioned as an idea for labelling food products, similar to the existing ‘traffic light’ system for salt, sugar and fat, as this could further inform consumers about where a product originated and its resulting carbon footprint.

Financially viable alternatives were discussed. It was widely agreed that greener alternatives need to be competitively priced.

Suitable government funding and legislation could help promote low carbon options. Carbon reduction/low carbon options should form part of infrastructure tenders, as cost is today.

Nottingham, aspiring to become carbon neutral by 2028, was mentioned as an example of positive changes led by local authority in the region.

East of England

Engineers can't wait for mandates before taking action

The East of England workshop heard how civil engineers must lead by example and not wait for mandates and detailed guidance before acting on carbon deduction.

Leadership starts with the individual to influence others through their actions, although it was acknowledged that collaboration is important to have impact at scale. Project processes need to be reviewed with a carbon deduction lens and define responsibilities from the outset.

Project appraisals could be adapted to emphasise this more, or even a specific Construction Design Management (CDM) plan for carbon might be a way to document it.

Adapting processes to look at the whole life asset management and a review of material specifications could lead us to think differently about what we use and what we waste – emphasising a circular economy approach.

The relationship between the media and scientists, particularly with sharing data, was seen as an important way to help people make informed decisions and change behaviours. Encouraging progress has been made in some sectors, such as steel and concrete.

A local flood defence scheme in Essex has changed materials and methods to using precast C40 CEM Free, reducing its carbon emissions by 84%.

London and the South East

More tools are needed to help people educate themselves

Availability of information plays a key role in altering behaviour. Netflix documentaries such as Seaspiracy and ones produced by David Attenborough changed perceptions around the climate emergency and sustainability on a global level.

There is now an abundance of information about net zero and the climate emergency. More clarity is needed about what tools are available to help people educate themselves on the issue and the trusted sources of information.

Workplace initiatives, such as utilising carbon calculators and sustainability forums, have helped frame people’s direct contribution. Observing behaviour around car ownership highlights the role of convenience and cost as deciding factors. This is also evident in industry initiatives, such as the London Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) or clean air zones, which use taxation to influence consumer behaviour.

There's an opportunity to flip the conversation to incentivise the use of electric or autonomous vehicles, with the latter having the potential to shift thinking and behaviour away from car ownership.

With many organisations and local authorities declaring climate emergencies, there is more willingness from clients to discuss innovative sustainability initiatives and solutions. These also need to be balanced with the priorities of local government to be successful.

The adoption of technology in the early stages of project is key to demonstrating the thinking behind the solutions and communicating the benefits to non-technical audiences.

North East

No action is not an option

Regional stakeholders from client, consultant and contractor sectors joined the North East workshop to discuss how their personal changes in behaviour were closely interlocked with their impact as civil engineers influencing the uptake of sustainable solutions.

Participants explored the continued need of awareness and education, and in our profession, the power to start challenging the understanding of risk, when choosing cheaper and greener options.

The other points raised, alongside great local case studies of the use of monitors and sensors, for real-time information and adjustment to these physical factors, was the need for new infrastructure. A dilemma that presented itself was the need to balance the need for carbon intensive refurbishment and how this could be refuted at planning stage.

There was also a stark reminder that we are hurtling towards extinction and therefore a no-action stance was no longer an option. The workshop finished on a positive note, concluding that although there was still much to address, progress was being made into raising awareness and also the acceptance of risk.

West of England

Water innovation and its role in climate change needs highlighting

The ICE West Midlands State of the Nation workshop was attended by members and regional stakeholders, including representatives from Sustainability West Midlands, Network Rail and the University of Birmingham.

Rachel Skinner’s ‘Shaping Zero’ film and David Attenborough documentaries were mentioned as ‘eye-opening’ programmes, which influenced a re-evaluation of choices and consider greener alternatives.

It was agreed that there appears to be a general lack of awareness with regards to the effects of climate change and water, particularly in the UK where rainfall tends to be high. Raising the profile of water company innovations and campaigning to encourage consideration of water as a precious resource were discussed.

Institutions and governments will need to be at the heart of encouraging change, as some attendees believed the wider public will not change behaviours simply because ‘it’s morally right’, if there are easier, commonly used options. Prohibitive costs of greener choices were cited, and others believed that economic and convenience benefits will likely compel more people to change behaviours.

There were some opposite views of the Clear Air Zones in cities. Some felt that they discourage people from travelling to cities, particularly where there is no alternative public transport infrastructure. Others believe they can have a positive influence and act as a nudge to change models to lower emissions.

By making greener choices in infrastructure designs, providing low carbon alternatives for clients to consider, by promoting renewable energy sources and low carbon materials, most believe that civil engineers can influence end users to switch to greener choices.

Yorkshire and the Humber

Low carbon choices need to be a 'no brainer'

One interesting discussion at the Yorkshire and Humber SoN workshop focused on whether people had access to adequate information to enable genuinely sustainable choices.

The traffic light system for food labelling was cited as an example – it is now easier for consumers to identify products with low sugar or salt, and a similar system would be helpful to signpost low carbon choices, both for the general public and for engineers.

Across the groups there was agreement that self-interest is a powerful motivator, and that low-carbon choices need to be made a “no-brainer”, whether through taxation, pricing policy or some other mechanism.

Covid has changed many things in a very short time, and it was considered important to retain the good things that came out of that – increased working from home, and a greater sense of community, for example.

But it also demonstrated that we can effect change very quickly when we have to. Net zero has to move from an aspiration to an imperative, and engineers are ready to play their part, but a government mandate is needed, sooner rather than later, to make it happen.

Regional stakeholders joined members of all grades for the workshop.

State of the Nation 2021: Project Board - 25 June 2021

Membership of the Board, led by ICE President Rachel Skinner, is now finalised. The group will meet regularly over the coming months, ahead of October’s launch.

Board members

  • Rachel Skinner, chair and ICE President
  • Dr Mike Cook, project principal, Buro Happold
  • Shamit Gaiger, director of strategic advisory, Aecom
  • Dr Jannik Giesekam, research fellow in Industrial Climate Policy, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds
  • Jim Hall, ICE trustee for Carbon and Climate
  • Toby Park, principal advisor, Energy, Environment & Sustainability at the Behavioural Insights Team (the original Nudge Unit), engineer
  • Kaye Pollard, ICE President's Future Leader 2020-2021
  • Bridget Rosewell, commissioner, National Infrastructure Commission
  • Richard Threlfall, ICE vice president, Learning Society
  • Bianca Wheeler, ICE President's Future Leader 2020-2021.

Initial steps – 27 May 2021

The State of the Nation 2021 report will build on two recommendations from last year’s State of the Nation 2020: Infrastructure and the 2050 net-zero target report – engaging the public to act and providing an infrastructure skills plan, to encourage civil engineers to develop low carbon solutions with the end user in mind.

The report’s steering group will be finalised in due course, while regional workshops will then be held in the UK from June, to gather evidence and seek members’ views, exploring and testing key ideas gathered during the expert interviews.

"Ahead of the crucial COP26 meeting in Glasgow, State of the Nation 2021 will consider the changing role of civil engineers in supporting meaningful climate action and analyse how we, as a profession, can use our collective influence to enable low-carbon choices,"  said ICE President and steering group chair, Rachel Skinner.

"The vast majority of carbon dioxide emissions associated with infrastructure are related to the way we use it over many generations. I look forward to working with our members and partners to explore what we can do to drive down emissions from both a civil engineering and public perspective."


What is State of the Nation?

ICE produces a State of the Nation edition every year which sets out a range of recommendations and interventions.

These aim to ensure the UK has high-performing infrastructure networks that facilitate the quest for net zero, economic growth and improved quality of life for those living across the nations.

Each year, the report focuses on a relevant and pertinent topic with past editions including housing, infrastructure investment, digital transformation and devolution.