Infrastructure Industry's Vital Role in Tackling Climate Change: Prioritising Sustainability and Resilience for a Net-Zero Future

Posted on 07 February 2022

The longevity of infrastructure assets means that the decisions we make today have a significant impact on the rate of climate change and the future of our planet. The urgency to address this issue has become even more pronounced after the COP26 summit held in Glasgow last year, which garnered extensive media coverage and brought climate change to the forefront of global concerns. As infrastructure is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, the industry plays a crucial role in helping the United Kingdom achieve its commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050.

To delve deeper into the challenges of delivering infrastructure projects while meeting these ambitious climate targets, NCE (New Civil Engineer), in collaboration with Arup, recently organised a thought-provoking discussion. The primary objective of this discussion was to prioritise sustainability and climate resilience in infrastructure development. Tim Chapman, a director at Arup, emphasised the gravity of the situation and the need for urgent intervention. He drew a parallel between the challenges posed by climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, likening their magnitude to that of World War Two. Chapman noted that humanity has demonstrated its ability to address critical crises like World War Two, but struggles to effectively tackle slower-moving crises like climate change. It is crucial to recognise that climate change is not a distant and abstract problem but rather one that is already impacting people's lives, even though its effects may be less immediately visible. Heleni Pantelidou, an associate director at Arup, highlighted the inequity faced by individuals in other parts of the world due to emissions caused by developed countries. These voices advocating for equity need to be amplified and considered in the decision-making processes.

Dan Epstein, the sustainability lead at the Old Oak Park Royal Development Corporation, raised an important question about whether the lack of recognition of the scale of the problem, rather than financial constraints, is hindering progress in addressing climate change. Richard Buckingham, the climate change and carbon manager at Anglian Water Services, suggested that framing climate change as a public health issue might result in a different approach and greater urgency in addressing it.

Experts in the built environment sector argue that gaining a better understanding of societal needs and desired outcomes is crucial in reimagining infrastructure decisions and reducing carbon emissions. Madeleine Kessler, an architect and director at Madeleine Kessler Architecture, emphasised the connection between social justice and climate change. She pointed out that her generation struggles to afford housing, let alone upgrade it, and highlighted that solving the housing crisis could contribute significantly to addressing the climate crisis.

In the journey towards carbon neutrality, it is essential to acknowledge the societal divide and ensure that all segments of society are included. Samantha Freelove, the legacy and sustainability manager at Tideway, stressed the need to bridge this gap to avoid further deepening the class divide. Kessler also emphasised the importance of involving the next generation and giving them a voice through policy and engagement with local schools.

Government policy plays a crucial role in driving change, as highlighted by Dan Saville, a director at Arup. He suggested that policy changes should create a demand for decarbonised energy, which would lead to cost reductions and public support, ultimately creating a virtuous cycle of supply and demand.

A systems thinking approach is also deemed essential to effectively address the climate challenge in the infrastructure sector. The Infrastructure & Projects Authority's report, titled "Transforming Infrastructure Performance," underlined the need to move away from siloed approaches and embrace holistic thinking. Jon Loveday, the director of infrastructure, enterprise, and growth at the IPA, emphasised the importance of making decisions today and implementing carbon pricing measures. Waiting until the 2030s and 2040s would be too late to meet the 2050 target. Chapman stressed the need for innovative approaches that create new systems supporting a net-zero United Kingdom by 2050, taking into account factors such as whole-life sustainability, carbon neutrality, resilience, social value, and biodiversity.

Responsibility plays a significant role in effecting change. According to Chapman, companies involved in the built environment have an obligation to ensure that their projects contribute to achieving net-zero targets. Mark Bottomley, the development director of the Lower Thames Crossing, emphasized that clients must also take ownership of the problem and actively contribute to sustainable solutions.

To drive change, experts propose several approaches. Saville suggests making sustainability a fundamental aspect of infrastructure projects, akin to health and safety. Christopher Harris, the carbon and sustainability manager at East West Rail, believes that achieving net-zero carbon across projects should be treated as a specific outcome rather than merely a benefit. Freelove believes that embracing diversity of thought can drive attitude shifts and bring about change. Kessler highlighted the NIC Design Group's principles for national infrastructure as a useful tool, which includes climate, people, places, and value. These principles should be integrated into project stages, regardless of an individual's role, to ensure sustainability and climate considerations are adequately addressed.

This discussion presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the infrastructure industry to make lasting changes. Recognising that every action and decision made today has a profound impact on the future, it is crucial to prioritise sustainability, engage diverse perspectives, and incorporate climate considerations throughout the entire project lifecycle. By adopting systems thinking, driving policy changes, and embracing responsibility, the industry can play a significant role in contributing to a more sustainable and resilient future.




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