'Act like we're in a crisis — because we are'

Covid-19 has given civil engineers a reality check. The time to take action on climate change is now, says ICE Fellow Paula McMahon.

Climate working group with Kirils Holstovs (ICE NE Regional Committee Climate Change representative and graduate engineer, AECOM), Robert Thorniley-Walker (former ICE Climate Task Force member), Anusha Shah (director, Resilient Cities, Arcadis) and Paula McMahon (ICE NE vice chair).
Climate working group with Kirils Holstovs (ICE NE Regional Committee Climate Change representative and graduate engineer, AECOM), Robert Thorniley-Walker (former ICE Climate Task Force member), Anusha Shah (director, Resilient Cities, Arcadis) and Paula McMahon (ICE NE vice chair).

In March 2019, Anusha Shah, the upcoming ICE succeeding vice president, urged us all to Get a grip on climate change in the NCE. In a recent chat between Anusha and representatives from the ICE North East (pictured), the group has acknowledged that much has changed since then. Still, even the most optimistic among us knows there is a long way to go and it must be approached with greater urgency.

COVID has given us a reality check

The global epidemic has taught us a lot about ourselves, our companies, our governments and human nature. We have changed many things since the start of the pandemic.

When we must, we do. We have simultaneously closed offices, pubs, places of worship and schools while many have discovered working from home is not only possible, but often preferable.

Crisis consolidates. We have seen communities come together to help each other. A crisis concentrates society on the greater good.



Clear objectives work. We saw how everyone from the government and civil society pulled together and adapted their behaviours to save lives.

Everyone contributes. We need all layers of our diverse society to achieve success effectively. When change is needed, we need everyone’s ideas and input.

True cost matters. We have realised that some things are more important than money. We need to take decisive preventative action or face higher long term financial and human costs. Immediately available funds are found in a national crisis.

Measurement doesn’t prevent. Recording figures informs action but does not generate it. Specific actions are needed to minimise specific risks.

Bills can be passed in a day. COVID-19 legislation passed without opposition in both houses within 24 hours. In an emergency, facts prompt action.

What is ICE's response to the crisis?

The ICE is working towards net zero - the State of the Nation 2020 guidelines are clear and concise. The working groups are developing much-needed extended guidance on benchmarking of carbon impacts, low carbon design and identifying systems to reduce carbon.

This will provide us with the frameworks and measures in the future to enable us to think and operate in new ways. Costs need to be measured not just in monetary terms but also the expense to our society and the environment. Sustainability risks need to be quantified in addition to health and safety ones.

However, this will take time to develop, agree and implement. We know from CDM, Project 13 and Eurocodes that the industry is slow to adapt. Years, often decades, go by for real change to occur, if ever.

Furthermore, the 2050 net zero target name gives the impression we have the time - unfortunately we do not. If we wait for policies, legislation and guidance, it may be too late. Hence this critical and essential work needs to be supplemented by more urgent measures now.

Call to action

If we do not repair, reduce, reuse, repurpose and recycle now, our options going forward will dramatically diminish. Act like we are in a crisis, because we are.

I ask you to make the most of recent attitude shifts and initiate discussions and share your ideas widely. Please make your actions bold, tangible and meaningful. You have the opportunity as planners, designers, builders and operators to change things at every stage for a cumulative impact.

Please help prevent future generations from blaming our industry for our lack of action in the face of overwhelming scientific facts.

Paula McMahon is a fellow of the ICE, Chartered Management Institute (CMI) and Women's Engineering Society (WES), the founding chair of Engineering Together, ICE Teesside branch chair, ICE North East vice chair, and honorary editor and chair of the Editorial Panel for the ICE Proceedings: Civil Engineering.

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