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Shaping Zero: taking ownership of the climate issue

18 February 2021

Success in addressing climate change will come down to ownership of the problem. When it comes to carbon, accountability is key.

Shaping Zero: taking ownership of the climate issue
When it comes to carbon, accountability is key

We, as civil engineers, have enormous potential to translate climate policies and ambitions into on-the-ground action and measurable progress across the sector. I raised this issue while speaking at the Institute for Government conference ahead of COP 26, and it bears repeating here.

The precise nature of what we do as creators, shapers and guardians of infrastructure puts us at the heart of the world’s carbon problem and also at the centre of new solutions. If we get our response to the climate crisis right, we can build confidence with policy-makers and draw investment towards us for the decades ahead.

To do this, we must understand and become properly accountable for the extent and urgency of the climate problem as it relates to what we do. Then we must deliver a solution of matching scale, at speed.

This brings us to a fork in the road.

We each have a crucial choice to make.

Do we take the 'high route'?

The ‘high route’ encourages us to raise our eyeline and focus on the big carbon picture.

Given our reach across the exact sectors where decarbonisation is so important and urgent (especially transport, buildings and energy, but also digital, water and waste) and our desire to play a pivotal part, we can grab the opportunity to bring through transformational change and measure progress at this high level. This applies everywhere, at all scales, and across the whole lifecycle of every asset.

This route is steep, challenging and complex, but takes us straight into highly respected, influential territory, where our voices and actions are heard, seen and appreciated; where we continue to make a real difference to communities across the world.

Or do we take the 'low route'?

The other route appears much easier at first glance. It’s smooth and tempting, and it involves us joining in with the crowd on the lower ground.

It quietly whispers that achieving net zero could be "easy" – we can set aside the inconvenience and hard work of leading real change and focus simply on measuring and offsetting our direct and controllable carbon emissions (for example, the energy use or travel associated directly with our organisations and employees), just like everyone else. It encourages us to continue to side-step the nature of our collective professional work – the detail and carbon potential of what we do and deliver – and essentially leaves others to worry about handling climate change.

Sadly, this ‘low route’ diverts us neatly around the vast majority of our potential to build visibility and respect, or to make a real difference, now or for future generations. Why? Because anyone choosing it is holding us all back, continuing to tie our sectors in as major contributors to the carbon problem.

We have the opportunity to choose the ‘high route’, right now, not just because we can but because the world needs and expects us to lead urgent change.

We can easily cut carbon from what we do, often ending up with lower cost solutions and system improvements.

We can start today. We simply need to ask ourselves new questions and fix our sights on the right carbon outcomes.

Are we bold enough to reach for the golden opportunity of industry transformation? To halve our carbon impacts, old and new – by 2030?

Are we bold enough to choose the high route? To take on proper accountability?

Are you bold enough to do what you need to do?

What are you going to do?

Join in: become an ICE Carbon Champion

You can now become an ICE Carbon Champion in exchange for sharing examples of planned and actual carbon reduction in practice. Please click here to find out more and start your entry.

Catch up: watch Shaping Zero

Our infrastructure assets and systems – either when created or as they operate all over the world – are responsible for around 70% of the carbon dioxide emissions generated every day. This is the primary driver of climate change and is unacceptable. We are causing harm and we have to change, now. Watch Shaping Zero, below, to find out more.

Don’t forget: go digital

Please consider the small but important step of opting for the digital edition of NCE at

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