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Zeroing in on carbon

21 July 2020

ICE Senior Vice President Rachel Skinner argues that while Covid-19 is the defining crisis of 2020, carbon is the existential crisis of the decade.

Zeroing in on carbon
We need to act now on climate change. Image credit: Shutterstock

In amongst all the chaos that has come to characterise the opening act of the decade, we have a crucial decision to make. We either need to act now on climate change, seeking to keep the global change in temperature within the crucial +1.5 degree limit by 2050 that experts predict would be challenging yet broadly manageable, or accept the consequences of not acting.

Climate change is caused by us and, in the main, by our overproduction of carbon dioxide each and every year beyond the level where our natural systems can re-balance the knock-on effects. We have known about it since the 1970s and the evidence has been building ever since, with wide acceptance since the 1990s. There is now a crunch-point on the immediate horizon.

The time to act is now

I know there is a temptation to wait - 2050 is a long way off. However, not taking this seriously and failing to act, for the avoidance of doubt, will lead to the same set of outcomes as choosing not to act at all. Two things are certain:

  1. If we tip the 1.5 degree limit, we will see a visible deterioration in our quality of life and greater inequalities everywhere around the world. Characterised by more frequent floods, fires, droughts, famines and more, we will be unable to protect everyone. We will also not be able, irrespective of budgets available, to build our way out
  2. The situation is not standing still as we dither and delay. Carbon emissions and world populations are growing, so the pressure to maintain – let alone improve – our collective quality of life is mounting each and every day

To me, the choice to act now, once you see and understand the alternatives, is not a choice at all.

Why this matters

So why does this matter to engineers in general, and why has ICE taken the bold step of launching The Carbon Project in the midst of the Covid lockdown?

Again, it's simple. We are the designers, providers and operators of infrastructure around the world, in every sector where that infrastructure is required.

We therefore have an extraordinary ability to influence choices around carbon use and emissions across every one of these critical sectors. Energy production, buildings and transport are the three primary areas where the intensity of carbon use is far higher than it needs to be, both through construction and in everyday use for the long run. Yes, there has been progress in these areas but it is nowhere near enough.

Those creating our existing infrastructure didn’t ‘design in’ this level of carbon intensity on purpose and there was no conscious intent to cause harm. We, like everyone else, simply didn’t have this on our collective radar until recently, but now we can see the local and global impacts, we must figure out how to design it out.

It is exciting and terrifying to realise that no-one else – and I mean that quite literally – is in the same position to make this transformation as we are because we are the infrastructure experts.

Even better, we have many of the solutions at our fingertips already, using a mix of digital and physical methods to change existing day-to-day operations to actively eliminate or reduce carbon. Innovation will come along the way but there is more than enough to get our teeth into in the meantime.

What is the Carbon Project?

This transformation in carbon consciousness and action is what ICE, through The Carbon Project, is seeking to achieve with the support of, and on behalf of, our community. As a leading professional body with influence around the world, ICE has a responsibility and a key role to play in leading both our members and the profession towards net-zero carbon.

The first key step was the launch of ICE’s State of the Nation flagship report on 1 July, which laid the groundwork for urgent action on carbon and climate change. The report recommends a series of UK-focused policy solutions to help overcome the challenges of achieving net zero. These range from creating a net-zero Infrastructure Plan to ensuring that the transition required is a fair one, leaving no-one behind.

Watch our recent webinar discussion on State of the Nation and creating a net-zero infrastructure plan below.

As well as providing recommendations to government, however, ICE also needs to help its members around the world to develop the skills, knowledge and mindset that will deliver net- zero carbon solutions through our projects and daily practice.

With that in mind, the second step was taken in parallel when I chaired a series of briefings with industry leaders, which allowed us to start unpacking the issues around carbon for our industry, to learn about the progress individual firms are making, and share some of the challenges we are all facing. From this, we have galvanised groups of industry leaders and expertise focused around three key workstreams where we can see the need and potential for rapid progress and action. The focus is on filling specific gaps and bringing through best practice and new thinking, with a clear mandate to avoid re-inventing any wheels.

What's next?

When I step up to take on the role of ICE President in November 2020, it is perhaps no surprise that my chosen theme is Net-Zero Carbon. I see this as an integral part of The Carbon Project and look forward to building interest, awareness and understanding of the scale of the engineering opportunities and challenges as I engage with ICE members all over the world, irrespective of Covid and continued lockdown.

Looking further ahead, a key check-in point – but in no way the end-point of the process – will be the hosting of COP26 in November 2021, which presents the ICE and our wider community with a unique opportunity to demonstrate how our industry is stepping up to the carbon challenge and to showcase and explain the role of engineers in creating, operating and maintaining, refurbishing and re-purposing infrastructure assets.

The goal of The Carbon Project is not to support the achievement of net zero carbon at any cost. This would be a hollow victory, given the need for effort across all of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). That said, climate change is one of these goals and it is one of the root causes lurking behind many of the others SDGs, so it is a pivotal point.

Can we really make a difference?

Many organisations within the built environment are making great strides to address the challenge of de-carbonisation but it is only by working together – and challenging each other that all the pieces of the puzzle will start to fall into place.

ICE was founded as an arena where civil engineers could convene to share their thoughts, challenges, and insights. The Carbon Project has, at its heart, this philosophy of collaboration and will be reaching out to all our partners in the built environment and beyond in order to engage, maximise our contribution and our impact.

Visit our Carbon Project hub

  • Rachel Skinner, chair at Infrastructure Client Group - Task Group