It is time for civil engineers to have the difficult conversations to turn climate talk into climate action

ICE President Rachel Skinner has launched this year’s State of the Nation with a rallying cry to the membership.

Civil engineers must urgently prepare themselves for difficult conversations with those procuring and using the infrastructure they design and deliver if they are to take ownership of their role in addressing the climate emergency.

That was the resounding message from the launch of ICE’s annual State of the Nation report, which this year identifies six key ways that civil engineers can act on climate change.

Launching the report a few weeks ahead of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, President Rachel Skinner explained how civil engineers can take ownership of the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced.

“It is time that we do things differently. And we have to start today,” she said, acknowledging that changing behaviors and influencing the client, government and infrastructure end users ‘to do the right thing’ will most likely be difficult but essential.

“Taking ownership of the climate challenge [for infrastructure] is a transformational turning point for civil engineering,” she said.

Civil engineers need to do things differently

Skinner was joined at the launch by a panel of industry leaders who all backed the call for civil engineers to do things differently.

Aecom director of strategic advisory Shamit Gaiger called for engineers to “demand better outcomes”, to always question “why we are doing something” and to change the collective mindset from being proud of physical assets to being proud of better outcomes.

She added: “Low carbon is no longer something that is ‘nice to have’, it is necessary. It has to be part of every project and every decision we take as engineers.”

Gaiger added that clients, and client briefs can sometimes cloud the end goal, and so it is up to engineers to ensure that they question everything they are designing and building to ensure that the outcome is the best product for the end user and the planet.

Time to change our, and users', behaviour

University of Strathclyde Chancellor’s Fellow Jannik Giesekam said that to achieve those changes, engineers will have to “get over the fear of being a pain in the ar*e” and have “necessary, but difficult conversations”.

“We need to retire the poster-boy image of an engineer in a top hat stood in front of a major piece of infrastructure and move towards an industry that celebrates better outcomes,” Giesekam added.

“Now is the time to start thinking about changing the behaviour of ourselves, but also of the people using the infrastructure we are designing.”

Building on the same theme, National Infrastructure Commission commissioner Bridget Rosewell said that to enable change, the industry must “build in the capacity to explain [the need for better outcomes] to other engineers, to government and to end users”.

ICE President’s Future Leader Kaye Pollard – who works at Mott MacDonald – called for civil engineers to approach the climate challenge “with the same urgency as we would approach a disaster”.

Pollard cited the speed at which engineers worked to help create Nightingale hospitals during the first lockdown as an example of what can be done when a task is treated as an emergency.

But Pollard, who is also an ICE Carbon Champion, also highlighted the challenge ahead.

“I’ve designed a structure that requires the same amount of carbon emissions to build as 85 years of my personal carbon footprint – more than the rest of my lifetime,” she said. “As engineers, the scale of emissions we have power over is absolutely enormous, and there is a responsibility that comes with that power.”

Six ways for civil engineers to act on climate change

In its State of the Nation 2021 report, ICE reviewed the UK’s infrastructure carbon footprint and assessed the membership’s readiness to take on the carbon challenge.

In response to these key findings, ICE has developed a practical guide of six key actions that members ought to take if they want to make immediate change.

These are:

  1. This is an emergency – treat it like one
  2. Bring carbon into every conversation
  3. Understand and influence end users
  4. Design and build for the ‘right’ outcomes
  5. Strive for creative solutions
  6. Be responsible for resilience

“These actions reach beyond reducing carbon. They aim to encourage others to make more significant interventions to reduce carbon emissions in the built environment,” Skinner explained.

Engineers don’t only need to rethink the infrastructure they provide; they also need to offer alternatives. Civil engineers should be providing infrastructure that actively encourages a shift to low-carbon behaviour.

At the official launch event, members of the State of the Nation 2021 Project Board discussed key findings from the report and why each call for action is so important to act upon.

Progress to date

“We have achieved a 23% carbon reduction between 2010 and 2017,” explained Dr Jannik Giesekam.

The bulk of the decrease in carbon emissions is down to the energy and waste sectors while the transport sector has seen a 3.9% increase.

Engineers have made substantial progress on the operational side: how civil engineers build and maintain our infrastructure systems. However, carbon emissions generated by infrastructure users have only slightly reduced, and capital carbon from newly built infrastructure has drastically increased.

“If we want to stay on track and deliver on the UK’s net-zero target, we need to pay more attention to how we use infrastructure and the role of civil engineers in influencing the user’s behaviour,” Jannik explained.

Act now

ICE has put decarbonisation and climate resilience on top of its agenda.

The Carbon Champions project is creating a vibrant community of low-carbon practice. It serves as a place to exchange best practice and test new ideas and methodologies.

On the resilience front, ICE is committed to working with the International Coalition for Sustainable Infrastructure to engage with the engineering community global climate action and resilience building.

Speakers at the SoN launch event:

• Rachel Skinner, ICE President and Chair of State of the Nation 2021 Project Board
• Dr Jannik Giesekam, Chancellor’s Fellow, University of Strathclyde
• Kaye Pollard, ICE President’s Future Leader 2020-21
• Shamit Gaiger, Director of Strategic Advisory, Consultancy, AECOM
• Bridget Rosewell CBE, Commissioner, National Infrastructure Commission

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Reports from the regional workshops - 4 August 2021

As part of State of the Nation’s research process, ICE held a series of virtual workshops across the UK regions, starting this month. Find out more about how they went and the discussion points raised below.

East Midlands

Greener alternatives need to be competitively priced

The ICE East Midlands State of the Nation workshop was attended by members and key stakeholders.

The pandemic has further changed behaviours and encouraged consideration of further greener choices, such as walking, cycling, or shopping locally.

Most agreed that further information was required to enable greener choices. ‘Carbon footprint’ was mentioned as an idea for labelling food products, similar to the existing ‘traffic light’ system for salt, sugar and fat, as this could further inform consumers about where a product originated and its resulting carbon footprint.

Financially viable alternatives were discussed. It was widely agreed that greener alternatives need to be competitively priced.

Suitable government funding and legislation could help promote low carbon options. Carbon reduction/low carbon options should form part of infrastructure tenders, as cost is today.

Nottingham, aspiring to become carbon neutral by 2028, was mentioned as an example of positive changes led by local authority in the region.

East of England

Engineers can't wait for mandates before taking action

The East of England workshop heard how civil engineers must lead by example and not wait for mandates and detailed guidance before acting on carbon deduction.

Leadership starts with the individual to influence others through their actions, although it was acknowledged that collaboration is important to have impact at scale. Project processes need to be reviewed with a carbon deduction lens and define responsibilities from the outset.

Project appraisals could be adapted to emphasise this more, or even a specific Construction Design Management (CDM) plan for carbon might be a way to document it.

Adapting processes to look at the whole life asset management and a review of material specifications could lead us to think differently about what we use and what we waste – emphasising a circular economy approach.

The relationship between the media and scientists, particularly with sharing data, was seen as an important way to help people make informed decisions and change behaviours. Encouraging progress has been made in some sectors, such as steel and concrete.

A local flood defence scheme in Essex has changed materials and methods to using precast C40 CEM Free, reducing its carbon emissions by 84%.

London and the South East

More tools are needed to help people educate themselves

Availability of information plays a key role in altering behaviour. Netflix documentaries such as Seaspiracy and ones produced by David Attenborough changed perceptions around the climate emergency and sustainability on a global level.

There is now an abundance of information about net zero and the climate emergency. More clarity is needed about what tools are available to help people educate themselves on the issue and the trusted sources of information.

Workplace initiatives, such as utilising carbon calculators and sustainability forums, have helped frame people’s direct contribution. Observing behaviour around car ownership highlights the role of convenience and cost as deciding factors. This is also evident in industry initiatives, such as the London Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) or clean air zones, which use taxation to influence consumer behaviour.

There's an opportunity to flip the conversation to incentivise the use of electric or autonomous vehicles, with the latter having the potential to shift thinking and behaviour away from car ownership.

With many organisations and local authorities declaring climate emergencies, there is more willingness from clients to discuss innovative sustainability initiatives and solutions. These also need to be balanced with the priorities of local government to be successful.

The adoption of technology in the early stages of project is key to demonstrating the thinking behind the solutions and communicating the benefits to non-technical audiences.

North East

No action is not an option

Regional stakeholders from client, consultant and contractor sectors joined the North East workshop to discuss how their personal changes in behaviour were closely interlocked with their impact as civil engineers influencing the uptake of sustainable solutions.

Participants explored the continued need of awareness and education, and in our profession, the power to start challenging the understanding of risk, when choosing cheaper and greener options.

The other points raised, alongside great local case studies of the use of monitors and sensors, for real-time information and adjustment to these physical factors, was the need for new infrastructure. A dilemma that presented itself was the need to balance the need for carbon intensive refurbishment and how this could be refuted at planning stage.

There was also a stark reminder that we are hurtling towards extinction and therefore a no-action stance was no longer an option. The workshop finished on a positive note, concluding that although there was still much to address, progress was being made into raising awareness and also the acceptance of risk.

Northern Ireland

Early intervention is key

Net zero needs to be embedded at the very early stages of projects, a workshop of infrastructure stakeholders in Northern Ireland concluded.

There is an opportunity for meaningful changes to come from making carbon a key part of procurement, and experts are needed to help inform policy and decision-makers, according to the State of the Nation 2021 workshop in the region.

Other discussions at the event covered good practices adopted to date by individuals and on projects.

It was also highlighted that there was a great deal of expertise and proactivity taking place regularly in Northern Ireland when it comes to the net-zero challenge. However, scope for change at pace, supported by clear policy and procurement, was also identified.

The workshop brought together cross-sectoral infrastructure stakeholders from across ICE’s membership, from graduates, students and apprentices to ICE fellows. Clients, contractors and consultants were also represented.

South West

‘Talking the talk and walking the walk’

The context of the South West region played an important role in the discussion, with participants making the point that what works for an urban setting may not be successful in a rural one.

There needs to be recognition that availability and affordability of options is not uniform within communities.

There was a strong feeling that civil engineers need to buy into “talking the talk and walking the walk” on decarbonisation. Civil engineers should lead by example, both individually and collectively, and communicate those examples in a way that’s understandable to a wide range of groups, from professionals to end users.

This led to a discussion about how everyone can make more informed decisions on carbon. The group felt better data was required to influence clients and customers on lower carbon choices, but that this is not yet routinely or easily available.

Collaboration and harnessing the young

Collaboration was highlighted as a critical part of the equation – no single profession or person can do this on their own, and collaboration needs to happen outside silos to be truly effective.

Finally, the workshop participants discussed how to empower younger generations, highlighting the need to teach sustainability within the national curriculum so that carbon reduction is embedded in the education system from an early age.

All grades of members joined representatives from the ICE South West Regional Committee at the workshop, which took place on 10 June 2021.

West Midlands

Water innovation and its role in climate change needs highlighting

The ICE West Midlands State of the Nation workshop was attended by members and regional stakeholders, including representatives from Sustainability West Midlands, Network Rail and the University of Birmingham.

Rachel Skinner’s ‘Shaping Zero’ film and David Attenborough documentaries were mentioned as ‘eye-opening’ programmes, which influenced a re-evaluation of choices and consider greener alternatives.

It was agreed that there appears to be a general lack of awareness with regards to the effects of climate change and water, particularly in the UK where rainfall tends to be high. Raising the profile of water company innovations and campaigning to encourage consideration of water as a precious resource were discussed.

Institutions and governments will need to be at the heart of encouraging change, as some attendees believed the wider public will not change behaviours simply because ‘it’s morally right’, if there are easier, commonly used options. Prohibitive costs of greener choices were cited, and others believed that economic and convenience benefits will likely compel more people to change behaviours.

There were some opposite views of the Clear Air Zones in cities. Some felt that they discourage people from travelling to cities, particularly where there is no alternative public transport infrastructure. Others believe they can have a positive influence and act as a nudge to change models to lower emissions.

By making greener choices in infrastructure designs, providing low carbon alternatives for clients to consider, by promoting renewable energy sources and low carbon materials, most believe that civil engineers can influence end users to switch to greener choices.

Yorkshire and the Humber

Low carbon choices need to be a 'no brainer'

One interesting discussion at the Yorkshire and Humber SoN workshop focused on whether people had access to adequate information to enable genuinely sustainable choices.

The traffic light system for food labelling was cited as an example – it is now easier for consumers to identify products with low sugar or salt, and a similar system would be helpful to signpost low carbon choices, both for the general public and for engineers.

Across the groups there was agreement that self-interest is a powerful motivator, and that low-carbon choices need to be made a “no-brainer”, whether through taxation, pricing policy or some other mechanism.

Covid has changed many things in a very short time, and it was considered important to retain the good things that came out of that – increased working from home, and a greater sense of community, for example.

But it also demonstrated that we can effect change very quickly when we have to. Net zero has to move from an aspiration to an imperative, and engineers are ready to play their part, but a government mandate is needed, sooner rather than later, to make it happen.

Regional stakeholders joined members of all grades for the workshop.


State of the Nation 2021: Project Board - 25 June 2021

Membership of the Board, led by ICE President Rachel Skinner, is now finalised. The group will meet regularly over the coming months, ahead of October’s launch.

Board members

  • Rachel Skinner, chair and ICE President
  • Dr Mike Cook, project principal, Buro Happold
  • Shamit Gaiger, director of strategic advisory, Aecom
  • Dr Jannik Giesekam, research fellow in Industrial Climate Policy, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds
  • Jim Hall, ICE trustee for Carbon and Climate
  • Toby Park, principal advisor, Energy, Environment & Sustainability at the Behavioural Insights Team (the original Nudge Unit), engineer
  • Kaye Pollard, ICE President's Future Leader 2020-2021
  • Bridget Rosewell, commissioner, National Infrastructure Commission
  • Richard Threlfall, ICE vice president, Learning Society
  • Bianca Wheeler, ICE President's Future Leader 2020-2021.

What is State of the Nation?

ICE produces a State of the Nation edition every year which sets out a range of recommendations and interventions.

These aim to ensure the UK has high-performing infrastructure networks that facilitate the quest for net zero, economic growth and improved quality of life for those living across the nations.

Each year, the report focuses on a relevant and pertinent topic with past editions including housing, infrastructure investment, digital transformation and devolution.

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