How engineers can slow climate change by looking at the bigger picture

Posted on 07 February 2022

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The lifespan of infrastructure assets means that today’s design decisions will have a key impact on the rate of climate change – but how do we ensure these choices improve the situation rather than accelerating it?

After the COP26 summit in Glasgow dominated headlines in November last year, climate change has never been more on the agenda.

Infrastructure is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, giving the industry a vital role to play in meeting the government’s commitment for the UK to reach carbon net zero by 2050.

NCE recently teamed up with Arup to discuss the challenges of delivering infrastructure while still hitting this target.

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There is a real need to ensure that sustainability and climate resilience are prioritised and Arup director Tim Chapman emphasised the gravity of the situation and the importance of intervention.

“Climate change and Covid are equivalent to World War Two,” he says. “Every resource in the western world went to the common goal of solving a crisis [during the war].

“The problem with climate change is we’re trying to dodge a bullet that’s coming at us too slowly. I believe in the ingenuity of humankind to solve crises that are absolutely critical, like with World War Two, but we’re rubbish at solving a crisis that’s slower rather than immediate.” There are people who are impacted right now because of our emissions somewhere else

Although climate change is perhaps a slow moving crisis, it is already having an impact. Arup associate director Heleni Pantelidou says: “There are people who are impacted right now because of our emissions somewhere else. The element of equity beyond our island is huge, but those voices are not loud enough.”

Meanwhile, Old Oak Park Royal Development Corporation sustainability lead Dan Epstein emphasises that “billions if not trillions” has been spent on Covid and questions whether money is the issue or if the scale of the problem is just not recognised when it comes to climate change.

Anglian Water Services climate change and carbon manager Richard Buckingham adds that if climate change was viewed “as a public health issue, it might be different”.

Society and climate change

Some built environment specialists say a better understanding of societal needs and desired outcomes could be critical to rethinking infrastructure decisions and reducing carbon.

According to Madeleine Kessler Architecture architect and director Madeleine Kessler, there is an important link between social justice and climate change.

“My generation can’t even afford to buy a house, let alone upgrade it,” she explains.

“It all goes hand in hand as part of this wider ecosystem. We need to be having this broader conversation – if you can somehow solve the housing crisis, that also can be an onset to solving the climate crisis.”

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Infrastructure decisions made now will impact on the ability to meet net zero by 2050

Tideway legacy and sustainability manager Samantha Freelove also emphasises the need to deal with this split in society. “Without taking all of society along with us we’re not going to get there and there’ll be an even greater class divide,” she says.

Overall, Kessler feels there is a missed opportunity to engage the next generation. Giving them a voice through policy could help with this, along with using existing networks with local schools, for example, to increase engagement.

Similarly, Arup director Dan Saville sees government policy as a key driver for change.

“It needs to start with policy changes, so the government creates the policy to force the regulated industries to include decarbonised energy,” he says.

“If you create the demand, it becomes cheaper and you bring the public with you. It becomes a virtuous circle of government policy feeding into that supply and demand.”

Systems thinking

There is also a need for systems thinking, as highlighted in the Infrastructure & Projects Authority’s (IPA’s)Transforming Infrastructure Performance report.

IPA director of infrastructure, enterprise and growth Jon Loveday explains: “There’s a lot of good work going on in government at the moment, but it is siloed and this is a topic that goes horizontal.

“We’re trying to get traction for things like carbon pricing and getting decisions made today. Projects [delivered] in the 2030s and 2040s will come too late to hit 2050 target.”

Meanwhile, Chapman emphasises the importance of finding better ways of doing things to create the new systems that would underpin a net zero UK by 2050.

“Whole life is everything,” he says. “Net zero carbon is desperately important but so is resilience, social value and biodiversity.”

Pantelidou also believes it is important to take climate and biodiversity together. “If one fails, the other goes as well,” she says.

Moving forward

There is an important element of responsibility too.

Speaking as a designer of the built environment, Chapman believes that companies have an obligation to make sure their projects are contributing to net zero. Lower Thames Crossing development director Mark Bottomley adds that clients have to own the problem as well.

“There are a lot of problems you can outsource but this is different,” Bottomley says. “There’s a lot of waiting around for someone to make the first move.”

So what does change look like?

Every action, every decision, everything we do now really does impact the future

According to Saville, a useful shift would be to make sustainability the same as health and safety – “like breathing” – while East West Rail carbon and sustainability manager Christopher Harris believes net zero carbon across projects should be seen as “a specific outcome not just a benefit”.

Freelove says that “diversity of thought” can help change attitudes and drive change, while Kessler feels people “need to embrace that it’s okay to fail”.

Kessler adds that another useful tool is the NIC Design Group’s principles for national infrastructure, launched two years ago. The four principles are climate, people, places and value.

“It’s about getting people to think about these design principles at every stage of a project no matter what their role in the project,” Kessler, an NIC Design Group member, explains.

“Every action, every decision, everything we do now really does impact the future. I’m interested in how we get people thinking about climate at every stage.”

A challenge, then, but also an opportunity for the industry to make changes with a lasting impact.

At the round table

This report is based on a virtual roundtable discussion held in November 2021. The discussion was held in association with Arup.

Contributing to the discussion were:

Mark Bottomley development director, Lower Thames Crossing

Richard Buckingham climate change and carbon manager, Anglian Water Services

Tim Chapman director, infrastructure design, Arup

Dan Epstein sustainability lead, Old Oak Park Royal Development Corporation

Samantha Freelove legacy and sustainability manager, Tideway

Christopher Harris carbon and sustainability manager, East West Rail

James Heath chief executive officer, National Infrastructure Commission (NIC)

Madeleine Kessler architect and director, Madeleine Kessler Architecture and NIC Design Group member

Sophie Khomeriki environmental engineering manager, Thames Water

Jon Loveday director of infrastructure, enterprise and growth, Infrastructure & Projects Authority

Heleni Pantelidou associate director, Arup

Dan Saville director leader of infrastructure sector, UKIMEA region, Arup

Adam Simmons director, future RIS and government relations, National Highways

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