Climate emergency: time for action

Civil engineers should be helping society with valid concerns on climate change and helping with coming emergencies. Robert Thorniley-Walker, formerly of the ICE climate task force, reviews past and future needs.

Arctic summer ice volumes have fallen exponentially in the past 40 years and could disappear by 2025,
Arctic summer ice volumes have fallen exponentially in the past 40 years and could disappear by 2025,

Younger civil engineers have started to demand action in a profession that once claimed to control the natural environment. As suggested by a former Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) task force (Kermode, 2017), civil engineers are pleased to help resist the impact of the changing environment, but they also need to admit to their role and responsibility in heating the planet.

Assessing the environmental fallout

Construction continues to cause around 17% of world greenhouse gas emissions, so it must be time to assess the risks from the industry’s short-term impact, as originally recommended by the UK Engineering Council in 1994. Instead, there has been extraordinary inertia over the past few decades. Many question how and why they should act without firm proof of danger, pointing out that land temperatures almost stopped rising at one point.

Instead the profession’s efforts in recent years have centred on achieving social and economic sustainability, using established high-carbon-dioxide solutions, and delivering the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals, even though only one involves the critical issue of climate change. Furthermore targets, codes of practice and even climate-emergency declarations tend to consider whole-life emissions over 60−120 years rather than current emission levels.

Forensic view of environmental risks

ICE has published many papers, often in its Engineering Sustainability journal, on aspects of engineering in relation to climate change, but remarkably few concentrate on the underlying causes and likely conditions to be met. ICE’s Forensic Engineering journal has published two useful themed issues (Thorniley-Walker, 2015a and 2017) by climate scientists and engineers, giving updates on the exponential temperatures, design needs and risk, Arctic sea ice melt, flood risks and new hurricane risks.

When pressed, even sceptical civil engineers accept there are real and imminent dangers from climate change. Surveys of opinions by the author (Thorniley-Walker, 2015b) have, for example repeatedly indicated that for 2°C of warming, 10% of the world population will need to move, for 3°C 35% of lives will be at risk and for 5°C only 45% of the population will survive. There will soon be blame and liability for major loss of livelihoods and life among the younger generation and their children, especially in the most vulnerable of countries.

Engineers are part of the problem

In October 2019 the Institution of Structural Engineers held an emergency climate conference,which revealed some alarming statistics. For example, a typical engineer has a carbon dioxide footprint of 1000 t/year, compared to the hard-won savings of just 2t/year from a vegan diet. Civil engineers must refurbish rather than demolish. Replacing concrete and steel and in new-build with stone and solid timber even offers the potential to store carbon in the short to medium term. However, the planet’s eco-system has already been degraded. Clearly the profession needs to stop being part of the problem and instead drive change and restoration.

The key issue is that civil engineers should be using simple risk assessments to address the hazards to and from projects, and particularly the incremental global impacts from the short-term emissions. They then need to have confidence to help society with the approaching climate emergencies.

This article is based on the authors’ briefing article in the latest issue (173 CE1) of the ICE Civil Engineering journal.

Civil Engineering is planning a special issue in 2021 on how civil engineers can rise to the challenge of climate change. Read the call for papers.

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