The Carbon Project: the critical role of the engineer in reaching net zero

There's no more time to waste if UK infrastructure is to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and here’s how engineers can help make the difference.

Students protest lack of action on climate change in London, UK in February 2020.
Students protest lack of action on climate change in London, UK in February 2020.
  • Updated: 08 July, 2021
  • Author: Dr Mike Cook, former vice president of IStructE, with series editor Leonie Gombrich

Governments around the world are committed to combatting climate change. National and international bodies, professional institutions, corporations, local government and community organisations have stated their determination to reduce carbon emissions. Citizens and schoolchildren protest for action against environmental damage. Concerned individuals worry about what all of this is going to mean – if we re-use shopping bags and eat plant-based burgers, can we still holiday in Tenerife without putting Norfolk under water?

In the meetings where infrastructure project teams make decisions – decisions with results that can last for generations –who is speaking up for our carbon net zero future?

In every single instance, it should be the engineer.


ICE’s Code of Professional Conduct makes clear that its members’ overarching responsibility is to the public good. The negative impact of carbon emissions on our shared planet is a demonstrable truth. Engineers, carrying out their daily duties, bridge the gaps between the fine words of organisations, the concerns of the public and practice on the ground.

We cannot wait for policy changes, although these will come. Infrastructure construction, operation and use generate more than half of UK carbon produced today, so there is no avoiding the responsibility of engineers to play their part in driving change.

1. Be the expert: keep yourself informed

Public opinion is changing faster than opinion in many areas of the infrastructure industry. This pace of change will accelerate and legislation will follow, which is why engineers also need to accelerate their understanding as a matter of professional competence.

Keep yourself well-informed about how approaches to the climate crisis are evolving at the highest levels – internationally, nationally, environmentally and economically – and research the implications for your own sector.

Be aware of current standards and commitments. Look for examples of best practice and seek out gaps in knowledge.

Engineers are good at finding answers. Even those clients who do not proactively seek carbon reduction advice – or those who actively resist it – need to be able to rely on engineers’ expertise in this area. Remaining silent is not an ethical option.

2. Refuse business as usual: keep carbon reduction on every project agenda

For most infrastructure projects being implemented now, designs were finalised long before current carbon commitments were undertaken. Contracts are in place and investment has been made. What’s more, provision may be based on societal expectations or ways of life that are themselves unfit for a lower-carbon future.

Despite these obstacles, it's never too late to put carbon on the project agenda. The government’s net zero commitment will be met by multiple contributions, not by stellar success in a few areas and business as usual in others.

Where it's too late to influence design, look again at implementation, operation or usage, are there carbon savings to be made further down the line?

Radical carbon savings can be generated through fresh thinking about outdated practices that may be surprisingly easy to change. You don’t necessarily have to be a technological innovator to make a difference – you just need to understand what you're looking for, and the seriousness of the requirement that you do so. Be prepared to do something small, rather than nothing at all.

The criticality of amassing reliable data to help further carbon reduction efforts cannot be overstated, as we will discuss later in this series. It’s never too late to insist on good analysis and robust data going forward – in many cases, it may be the most useful thing you can possibly do.

3. Be prepared to be radical: the best project may be… no project at all

Infrastructure projects have both long lead times and long lives. These factors, which can make the infrastructure industry particularly slow to change, are also the strongest arguments for radical action now.

The impact of low-carbon design is greatly increased in accordance with a project’s magnitude and longevity. And because by far the greatest proportion of carbon is generated by user behaviour, project design that encourages less carbon-wasteful behaviour has the greatest impact of all.

Bearing all of this in mind, often the most effective solution may be not to build at all. Commitment to a carbon zero future means investigating alternative scenarios that involve re-use, adaptation, and the possibility of behaviour change that will radically reduce user need for the asset.

Carbon-generating projects may indeed be required for social or even economic reasons, but increasingly, very substantial future benefits will have to be demonstrated to justify embarking on carbon-costly schemes. When that future arrives, we will be called upon to show that robust argument and analysis underlaid the recommendations that we made.

4. Offer hope: we have always built the future

It's hard to name a past infrastructure project that hasn't been subject to political difficulties and public concern on the grounds of cost, safety and unfamiliarity. Twenty-nine years ago, the Channel Tunnel was three years from completion and, in the UK, was a source of public mockery and distrust. Once opened, it was lauded as one of the seven engineering wonders of the world, and now it’s an efficient and routine part of our transport network.

Twenty-nine years from today, if every sector plays its part, the UK will be a carbon net zero country and changes in lifestyle that now seem unimaginable to the general public will themselves be routine.

Engineers, of all people, must know this, because we have driven progress time and again. This time, resistance to change may come from within the room where project teams meet, but that should not discourage us from applying our expertise.

Civil engineers designed the infrastructure that has enabled the lives of comfort and convenience that people have grown used to, but that has since proved to carry a high environmental cost. Now it's time to adapt and move forward, building new lives that people have not yet imagined.

Shifts from road to rail, from water wastage to conservation, from single use to re-use, from fossil fuels to renewables rely on the work of engineers. Let us repay the trust put in us. By giving the right advice now, we can help to secure a planet that is able to support future generations, and a more equitable future for all.

  • If you have a project – past or present – for which you can demonstrate carbon savings, apply to be part of ICE’s Carbon Champions.

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