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7 powerful things civil engineers do to fight climate change

18 August 2023

We all have a part to play to protect our planet.

7 powerful things civil engineers do to fight climate change
Tackling the climate crisis will be a collaborative effort. Image credit: Shutterstock

With the effect that the built environment has on our planet, civil engineers find themselves in a position to tilt the scales towards a more sustainable future.

And since it’s such a diverse profession, there are plenty of ways in which engineers can take positive climate action.

Below are just a few that our members have highlighted.

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1. Reducing carbon

One of the most significant ways civil engineers can take positive climate action is by reducing the amount of carbon in their projects.

The built environment is responsible for 40% of the UK’s carbon emissions. This includes:

  • Embodied: the carbon emitted during the construction of a project
  • Operational: the carbon emitted once the building is in use (maintenance, management, etc.)

There’s been a greater focus on reducing embodied carbon, as Lucie Killen, structural engineer at Price & Myers, has noted.

“It’s becoming a much more important parameter in any structural design, and that thinking allows for more efficient and sustainable structures.

“It’s always a challenge, and there isn't a simple answer on how to achieve low carbon design, but it’s an opportunity to be more creative and reduce the impact we have on the environment,” she says.

Designing efficiently, using low-carbon materials and recycling are just some of the ways Eleanor Ball’s team at Graphic Structures aims to reduce its embodied carbon.

They’re also fans of Passivhaus, a low carbon, performance-based building standard.

2. Taking part in important conversations

sustainable development goals
Knowledge sharing will help us achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Image credit: Shutterstock

Civil engineers have the expert technical knowledge that world leaders need to make sustainable decisions.

Therefore, it’s the engineers’ duty to speak up and share what they know in these forums.

Evangelos Pastras, senior energy storage consultant at DNV, does his part by leading the Commonwealth Sustainable Energy Transition Youth Action Group (CSET Youth).

This group represents young professionals working to accelerate the sustainable energy transition.

Joining him as co-lead is past President’s Future Leader, Micheala Chan, who also leads the national policy workstream for the World Federation of Engineering Organizations’ Future Leaders/Young Engineers Working Group on climate action.

As climate change means more extreme weather, engineers also have a vital role to play in disaster risk reduction, as an ICE and International Coalition for Sustainable Infrastructure (ICSI) report has found.

3. Making our infrastructure resilient to more extreme weather events

houses in flooded neighbourhood
The climate emergency is already creating more extreme weather events. Image credit: Shutterstock

Engineers are working hard to make sure that our infrastructure is climate resilient.

For instance, material scientist Dr Alalea Kia is working on a new type of permeable pavement that will help address urban flooding.

As director of water utilities at Binnies, Rachel Pether has been leading the development of an intelligent Dam Monitoring System, which improves the understanding of dams and decreases the risk of failure.

Climate adaptation plays a really important role, and civil engineers can help communities prepare.

Dr Ravindra Jayaratne, reader in coastal engineering, has been collaborating with the Sturmer Flood Action Group in Essex to help the community monitor nearby streams.

In the event of flooding, the community will be well prepared and aware of likely consequences. This also helps to reduce stress and anxiety.

4. Designing with sustainability at heart

From picking sustainable materials to lowering energy use, Esther Olorunfemi keeps the environment in mind when renewing assets in her role as head of engineering for London Trams, Transport for London.

In her role developing construction schemes and temporary works, Mercedes Ascaso Til tries to re-use materials and equipment, retrofitting where possible.

Regardless of your civil engineering specialty, you can do your part for the planet. It might take some innovation, and it will require you to keep learning.

Claire Pallett, associate technical director at Arcadis, explains: “As civil engineers we need to be aware of the development and improvement of [sustainable products and methods] so that we can be more innovative in our designs to tackle climate change in all that we do.”

For example, engineers are working on exciting new solutions that harness nature for the benefit of people and the planet.

5. Promoting active travel

couple cycling on road
Active travel contributes to the wellbeing of people and the planet. Image credit: Shutterstock

Civil engineers can also enable others to reduce their carbon footprint.

“As a highways and traffic engineer, I'm designing road schemes which promote the use of active travel modes, such as walking and cycling, and therefore decreasing the use of private vehicles,” explains Serena Gough, senior urban highways engineer at Arcadis.

From providing safe roads and walkways, to having appropriate and secure parking for cyclists – there's more to active travel than you may think.

Accessibility is key.

6. Taking personal action!

composting food waste
You can take positive climate action at home, such as composting. Image credit: Shutterstock

To many, separating your recycling or reducing food waste at home may not feel like the biggest steps towards a sustainable future.

But don’t underestimate the effect of collective action – when we all pull together, we can move forward at a significant pace.

From choosing public transport over your car, like Kathleen Harrison, senior associate director at Jacobs, to striving to buy ethically, like Josie Rothera, consultant trainer at PL Projects – it all counts.

Josie, a member of the Yorkshire Rewilding Network who can often be found planting trees, highlights the importance of sharing what you do.

She says: “I ensure that my actions are visible to my network and to my own family, especially my young children. Although at times they’re able to educate me on sustainable behaviours!”

7. Providing essential services

“It is all well and good talking about climate change but if a household does not have access to water and electricity, they will not be able to engage and respond,” says Professor Priti Parikh, director of UCL’s Engineering for International Development Centre.

The centre explores climate resilient infrastructure solutions with a focus on gender inclusivity, as climate change affects women more.

“Communities need access to basic infrastructure services to improve their quality of life and build resilience,” Priti explains.

Therefore, if your work brings water, electricity, heat, transport, food, and more, to your community, then you’re also doing your part.

What can you do to help fight climate change?

Are you taking steps in your personal or professional life?

We want to hear from you!
  • Ana Bottle, digital content editor at ICE