Photo: London Array Ltd.

Shaping zero: Responding to the infrastructure challenge

By Alistair Kean, Environment Director, COWI in the UK, first published in The Engineer, in January 2021

“The way we, as civil engineers, have planned, designed, constructed and operate our infrastructure systems have been part of the (climate change) problem: “It hasn’t been intentional but it’s time to recognise that we need to do things differently.”


Those were the stark words from incoming President, Rachel Skinner in her inaugural address to members of the UK Institute of Civil Engineers.

From the address, what was clear is the outsized role that civil engineers will play in society’s response to climate change. The carbon impact of the infrastructure that we create is twofold; firstly, created by the design, materials and construction choices we make, and secondly through the behaviours that we enable – be they energy, transport, buildings, water, waste or digital. Altogether it means that 70% of carbon emissions can be traced back to infrastructure.

To reach net zero, we must cut lifecycle emissions in half by the end of the next decade across all sectors. But as Lord Deben, Chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, puts it, “We are no longer in control of the timetable” which means we must also think about adaptation to increased floods and droughts, rising sea levels, more aggressive heatwaves, fires and extreme weather. If we are to achieve net zero in time, we must first harness our collective capability as engineers and secondly change the way we think. For too long, reducing carbon emissions has been a value add. Instead, it must be core to all activities, and we must regard those activities within the system as a whole.

A new calling: climate change

As engineers, we recognise the sheer scale of the challenge in addressing climate change. In fact, it has become so existential that, for many of us, it now represents a lifechanging proposition. At the same time, it calls many of us back to why we became engineers; to make the world a better place. We must be part of the solution to alter society’s carbon trajectory.

Reducing carbon needs to be the focus of every engineer in practice, and those yet to enter the profession too, for the rest of their careers. This is no longer a problem we can leave for other professions or later generations. As the wielders of carbon intensive steel and cement, we must explore new ways to create infrastructure and not rely on manufacturers and research institutes to develop low or no carbon options for us. And public momentum is behind us. In transport infrastructure for example, the outcry against extension of the Heathrow airport outside London made the message clear: Business as usual is no longer welcome.

Transport is one of the best industries in which to strengthen sustainability in the near term, because infrastructure is designed to stand for such a long time. Some of Network Rail's oldest bridges and cuttings are still in operation 200 years later. Building efficiently, using low carbon materials, innovating and re-using old structures will help. But, so will designing intelligently. Slight adjustments to gradient on highways and railways, for example, can create significant carbon savings over time. Building bridges or tunnels with space for future cabling or services can extend lifetimes.

We must also tackle the common assumption that reducing carbon comes at a premium. If projects begin to factor in the lifecycle cost and associated impacts of not reducing carbon, then it becomes clear that action now will serve positively later. And for those less proactive, as carbon taxes become more commonplace, the economic return will become more apparent. For now, the economic cost of pollution is limited, but it is only a matter of time.

Breaking the status quo

While most engineers may be enamoured by the technical challenge posed by solving the world’s most pressing issue, we really need to leverage softer skills. It is possible that we have stayed in the background for too long, when in fact we are more qualified than most to deliver a net zero world. In other words, now is the time for us to take the lead. Some would say that it is also our responsibility as it was engineers that drove the industrial revolution all those decades ago – it’s a debt that we should repay. Whichever reason strikes you, it boils down to it being our professional duty to act, and we cannot afford to wait to be instructed.

Sustainability can no longer be the exclusive remit of the “benefits team”. It can no longer be a value adding activity, an afterthought, but must be treated as a core part of every engineering project. To achieve this, we must begin to break down the siloes that divide us and block the creative problem solving that spurs sustainability. We must identify and use all opportunities on projects as well as adjacent areas, to create sustainable solutions.

Utilising under-appreciated treasures, such as billions of gallons of minewater, to provide a low-cost, low-carbon, reliable and resilient heating solution across the country, is one such opportunity. With the aid of technological drivers, smarter urban designs, systems, services, and use of real-time data we can offer tailored, smart and sustainable engineering solutions, to make a positive impact on societies around the globe. These next-generation solutions redefine the old infrastructure not only in the way they are thought out, but also by transforming many liabilities to assets.

Our thinking must also stretch beyond our immediate remit to consider the project’s use and lifecycle. For transport infrastructure we must consider how people travel and goods move, and this will evolve into the future. We need to engineer our towns and cities in a way that integrates different door-to-door options in a way that can accommodate future changes and challenges such as climate or pandemics. And decommissioning must also be considered – the 20th century is littered with design mistakes where decommissioning has not been given proper thought. Instead we need to consider project materials within a circular economy, get to grips with embedded carbon within supply chains and understand how we can reduce, reuse and recycle.

One would be forgiven for feeling daunted by the challenge, but we can take comfort in knowing that this is what we have trained for. Ahead, we are faced with a vast set of unusual and exciting sustainability problems that offer every engineer an opportunity to leave their mark on the world. As Skinner said, there are some aspects we need to do differently, we must change the way we think and collaborate with others, but as avid problem solvers, there is no better profession for the job.

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