Engineers - enabling a low-carbon future

On the 9 and 10 December, ICE hosted the Civil Engineering Triennial Summit. It brought together distinguished professionals from the ICE and its American and Canadian counterparts under the theme Resilience and Growth for Future Cities.

Researchers examine the impacts of climate change in the Arctic in 2011.
Researchers examine the impacts of climate change in the Arctic in 2011.
  • Updated: 15 December, 2015
  • Author: Alex Crump, ICE President's Apprentice

The summit was timed to coincide with the conclusion of the COP21 talks. However, as the first session (titled Why Act Now?) began in Westminster negotiations were still continuing in Paris.

Why act now?

Keith Clarke CBE, ICE Vice President is a passionate and engaging speaker. He set the tone for a thought-provoking first session by explaining the need for engineers to answer new questions to meet our changing climate rather than continuing to respond to outdated challenges with bigger answers. After stating that the science of climate change is ‘done’ the stakes were laid bare; people are already dying. Representing the American Society of Civil Engineers, Dick Wright continued the theme by highlighting the dangers of making assumptions about future events based on past extremes. Alan Perks from the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers then completed the presentations by describing the need to formulate clear and unbiased choices if we are to meet his primary concerns; can we respond to the climate change challenge or have we built a bridge too far? Can we accommodate 11 billion inhabitants?

A President’s Apprentice’s perspective

Given the above it’s easy to imagine an atmosphere of doom, gloom and fear. However, in a room largely full of engineers the discussion session quickly turned to how we can solve this urgent and increasing crisis. Given my relatively recent graduation, it was pleasing to see education at the heart of this with Keith Clarke stating that climate change should be as essential to civil engineering degrees as the teaching of wind loadings. This is an area where the three institutions can apply their extensive knowledge base to influence degree structures to ensure future engineers are well equipped to meet this dilemma.

Away from educational establishments, the institutions can play a further key role by pooling the knowledge of 300,000 members to influence the wider industry and decision-makers to enable a coordinated response to this crisis. Victorian engineers are remembered for an age of large-scale and innovative solutions and with the increasing capital investment in infrastructure today’s engineers have a similar opportunity to build a legacy of smart, holistic and low-carbon solutions.

A refusal to entertain doubts surrounding the science of climate change is the correct approach. The tipping point is getting closer and natural disasters will increase in both regularity and severity. Climate change will lead to cost implications for maintenance and repair budgets that the profession could reduce through enhanced future proofing and the smarter use of our existing networks. There is a compelling economic case for action.

This is an important association; we must remember infrastructure’s social and economic responsibilities and recognise these interdependencies when designing for the environment.

What’s next?

The case to act now is compelling, time is critical. The conclusion of the COP21 talks has shown a widespread aspiration to limit the effects of climate change but political willpower alone will not be enough; how engineers react will be vital. Infrastructure can enable a low carbon economy but it takes time to deliver and must remain appropriate throughout its lifetime despite unpredictable events.

Climate change is an awkward problem requiring innovative solutions but just because the answers are not obvious it shouldn’t stop the questions being asked.

About the author

Alex Crump is an ICE President Apprentice for 2015-16.