Net-zero: the future engineer's perspective

Alex Backhouse, President's Future Leader 2019 and Tunnel and Structural Engineer at Atkins, reports on ICE's roundtable discussion on how the construction sector can contribute to the UK's 2050 net-zero target.

Image credit: Quartzla/Pixabay
Image credit: Quartzla/Pixabay
Over the past year, there's been a noticeable shift in the debate around climate change. It has risen in the public and political agenda. Net-zero was mandated in law in July 2019 by the UK government, giving the UK 30 years to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero.

This has profound ramifications for the engineering industry. The science continues to reinforce the importance in controlling the rise in global temperatures. 

The Treasury’s 2013 Infrastructure Carbon Review stated that 53% of current carbon emissions are directly related to infrastructure (projected to increase to 80% in 2025 and 90% in 2050 as other sectors improve).

This puts the responsibility on the infrastructure industry to act now in order to implement ambitious and innovative plans that will drive the urgent and unprecedented changes required to achieve net-zero.


What does net-zero mean?

Net-zero will be reached when the greenhouse gasses produced through human activity are reduced to a level where the remaining emissions can be removed.

This occurs naturally through photosynthesis, and current predictions require increasing carbon capture to balance emissions. 
 

How do we transition to the low carbon economy?

I was fortunate enough to find myself at the ICE’s roundtable discussing “How infrastructure can contribute to the UK’s 2050 net-zero target”. 

As a major emitter, the infrastructure sector has a significant role to play in achieving net-zero but how do we galvanise the sector into action? And there's a wealth of enthusiasm across the industry for action. Especially from the younger, newer engineers who are demanding a change in the way the infrastructure industry addresses sustainability.  

The conversation focused on the following key points: 


Leadership

Leadership is essential. Leaders of companies need to become advocates, ensuring the company vision is aligned and that the company is truly committed to achieving sustainable outcomes.

Taking the sustainable route continues to make increasing business sense as clients - particularly those in the public sector - are held to account and are under increasing pressure to limit the negative impacts of construction. There's plenty of discussion at senior leadership level, but there needs to be a shift from rhetoric to action, embedding carbon reduction at the centre of the organisation.


Cultivate a sustainability culture

Today, the infrastructure industry's health and safety culture is one of its greatest assets.

In comparison, sustainability is just starting to grow. We need to nurture, encourage and accelerate this growth.

A strong company vision will help shift and encourage sustainable behaviours. Again, this is supported by clear leadership, outlining, promoting and rewarding sustainable behaviours.

The shift in culture needs to be coupled with education. Engineers need to learn about carbon, waste, material reuse and efficiency, and wider sustainability to enable them to develop the skills required to deliver the work required for the future. 
 

Targets

Net-zero can seem so vast and complex that many individuals may be completely overwhelmed and not understand how their individual actions can help.

Part of the effort is to clearly identify and communicate the meaningful steps individuals can take to start on the route to net-zero in the form of ambitious but achievable targets.

The spotlight has recently been shone on the environmental impact of diet and air travel (for example, reducing meat intake and carbon footprints). It's clearly shown how slight changes in individual's behaviour can have a significant and positive impact and has resulted in a shift in the way people eat and travel.

Similarly, this approach can be adopted by companies within the infrastructure industry. By setting robust targets for carbon reduction and communicating a clear process, their employees and supply chains will be able to take steps to achieve them. 


Reuse    

A point emphasised at the ICE's roundtable was that achieving net-zero is not all about new builds (which make up 0.5% of infrastructure annually) but about refurbishment and retrofitting existing assets.

In-use and decommissioning emissions make up 80% of the infrastructure carbon footprint. Capability of reusing and retrofitting exiting assets needs to be grown and the trend seeing building lift spans decreasing, reversed. 


Procurement 

The long lead in times for infrastructure projects and their ever-longer intended design lives means it is critical that investment decisions are aligned with net-zero.

Tideway has set an impressive example of how ‘Green Bonds’ can be used to fund key projects that prioritise value. With this, there is the need for procurement to shift to prioritising project value rather than the lowest cost. 


A defining opportunity

Sixteen companies were represented at the ICE's roundtable. I was hugely encouraged to hear that a number of them have already committed to achieving net-zero by 2030. An effort requiring these companies and their supply chains to make fundamental changes.

A target such as this clearly articulates the company’s values, provides leadership and communicates a clear message to those who work for, with and in competition with them. This is a defining opportunity for our profession. The rest of the industry needs to follow. 

We are the first generation to know that we are destroying the planet. We could also be the last generation to be able to change it. Action is required to shape a resilient future for future generations. It's time for our industry to rise to the challenge. 
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