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How can Scotland face the challenges of climate change?

28 August 2023

ICE Scotland chair, Donald Bell, explains the need for simultaneous progress on net zero and climate resilience.

How can Scotland face the challenges of climate change?
Extreme weather events caused by climate change include the severe landslip at the A83 Rest and Be Thankful in 2020. Image credit: BEAR Scotland

Society is facing two major challenges: achieving net zero and improving the resilience of our infrastructure.

Both are linked to the climate change we’re all experiencing, and civil engineers have a key role to play in helping our communities meet these challenges.

How can the construction industry move to net zero?

Data from the Royal Society indicates that even if greenhouse gas emissions were to stop suddenly, the earth’s surface temperature would require thousands of years to cool and return to pre-industrial levels.

We have, therefore, already committed future generations to climate change.

Millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases are emitted during the production of the cement and steel we use, and that’s simply not sustainable.

It’s widely reported that cement production amounts to around 7% of global CO2 generation.

Decarbonising Scotland

ICE Scotland has taken a lead in looking at how we can reduce carbon in construction in our report Accelerating the decarbonisation of Scotland’s infrastructure.

Based on the experience of those at the forefront of this transition, we wanted to understand what interventions from government and industry will get us to net zero faster.

Exemplar projects include the Forth Ports Net Zero Hub, Glasgow’s Smart Canal and the Aberdeen Hydrogen Bus Network.

The report – produced by Mott McDonald – collates learnings and observations from the wide array of practitioners delivering projects in Scotland that are driving infrastructure towards net zero.

It identified four cross-cutting topics:

  • Behaviour change
  • Training and skills
  • Leadership
  • Funding

From these themes, the report made five recommendations:


This should have a focus on net zero aligned outcomes.

This needs to be supported by better carbon literacy throughout project design, delivery and operation.

It should be underpinned by procurement regimes and contracts which effectively consider carbon.

A place-based approach

Greater emphasis should be placed upon developing and supporting approaches which exploit the individual opportunities of place to deliver national net zero policies.

Planning and regulation

The existing system needs sufficient investment to allow it to play a progressive role in supporting net zero and not be viewed as a bottleneck.

Systems thinking

An assessment of a project’s benefits should include wider environmental and sustainability aspects such as biodiversity, climate resilience and social value.

It should also be linked to the Scottish Performance Framework.

Digital twins can assist with this.

Scottish Infrastructure Net Zero Coalition

This would see the creation of a body where infrastructure owners and stakeholders can convene to demonstrate leadership, share learnings and plan for an integrated economy-wide transition to net zero.

How do we build resilience in our infrastructure?

But if we’re changing our approach, and decarbonising future infrastructure, how do we cope with the climate challenges of today?

Maintenance has never been sexy. No politician is pictured cutting a ribbon on a pothole repair or drain renewal.

We need to change that mindset.

Society functions on safe, efficient infrastructure, most of which already exists.

Earlier this year Audit Scotland published a report which noted that although climate governance has improved since the Scottish government declared a climate emergency in 2019, adapting to its impact has received less focus than reducing emissions and net zero.

It said risk management arrangements around climate change were underdeveloped:

  • Process to identify risks isn't always clear
  • Actions to address risks are sometimes vague
  • There isn’t a systematic process in place for tracking actions in risk registers

Climate-ready infrastructure

Audit Scotland’s findings echoed an ICE Scotland 2020 report titled Climate ready infrastructure, which highlighted that government and industry must act with urgency.

It recognised that extreme weather events, driven by climate change, were increasing in frequency and severity to an extent our infrastructure just wasn’t built to withstand.

Our report pointed to numerous examples which had happened in 2020:

  • Wildfires in New Galloway Forest, Wester Ross and Kilpatrick Hills;
  • a breach of the Union Canal; and
  • a severe landslip at the A83 Rest and Be Thankful.

Sitting alongside these high-profile cases, are hundreds – if not thousands - of smaller ones causing disruption across the country.

The benefits of climate-ready infrastructure aren’t just economic, but also social and environmental.

Adaptation and resilience

It’s encouraging that Transport Scotland has just published its Approach to Climate Change Adaptation & Resilience report.

This covers mitigation, adaptation and resilience of its assets and operations, and includes a recommendation on cross sector engagement and sharing best practice.

We very much welcome this approach, especially as it echoes many of our recommendations contained in our 2020 report.

Maintain, adapt and enhance

Our report also highlighted that our focus of ‘maintain, adapt and enhance’ is aligned with the Scottish government’s own hierarchy contained in its Infrastructure Investment Plan (IIP), which advocates for maximising the use of our existing assets rather than building new ones.

The IIP also aligns with the UN Sustainable Development Goals - a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030, all people enjoy peace and prosperity.

The key recommendation in our report was for a wide-ranging, cross-sector Adaptation Task Force to be created, building on work for the public sector by Adaptation Scotland.

This would bring together experts to help prioritise adaptation for maximum impact, establish finance and delivery mechanisms, and assess where climate readiness is best supported not by adaptation or retrofit but by new assets.

So, what do we need to do?

  • Think deep and long-term – is there a smarter solution than a concrete or steel one?
  • Emphasise the need to look after the infrastructure that is already in place
  • Collaborate – share knowledge and look for best practice
  • Work with our communities to develop solutions that fit

The work of civil engineers has enabled our communities to grow and thrive.

We need to take this forward for the climate challenges ahead.

  • Donald Bell, chair at ICE Scotland