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Why we don't need to reinvent the wheel to tackle climate change

23 February 2022

Micheala Chan, member of the ICE London Sustainability reading club, reflects on tangible steps engineers can take to build on the momentum of the ICE State of the Nation and achieve net zero.

Why we don't need to reinvent the wheel to tackle climate change
Many young engineers don’t know what they can do about climate change. Image credit: Alena K/Pexels

Launched last year, the ICE State of the Nation 2021 calls on civil engineers to own their responsibility to reduce the infrastructure carbon footprint and use their influence to bring about real change.

The report is a great starting point with a clear outline of actions all engineers should take, although for some, this can be overwhelming.

Indeed, many young engineers don’t know what they can do about climate change.

In fact, according to the State of the Nation report, 22% of ICE members cite 'lack of own knowledge' as limiting their ability to address green house gases (GHG) emissions and climate change adaptation. Only 15% of ICE members always consider climate issues in their work.

This shaped the conversation during the first ICE London Sustainability reading club on 27 January 2022, organised by sustainability champion Anna Tyler, ICE London graduates, and the student committee. It stimulated a lot of great thinking on how to move forward.

Addressing the challenges

The main challenges identified to making progress were:

  • Trying to tackle sustainability as a whole can be daunting given how many facets there are to consider.
  • There has been an emphasis on site waste rather than making designs more efficient, which can potentially have a greater impact.
  • Reusing existing assets may be difficult where there are no record drawings available.
  • Many worry about the negative connotations of bringing up sustainability in every single conversation.
  • There is not always enough conversation and in turn, a large amount of time wasted. Productivity is a key challenge we face as an industry (see ICE President Ed McCann’s address).

Building on momentum

Our attendees identified a few ways we, as an industry, can continue to build on the momentum of the State of the Nation and make sure we hit the targets we need to prevent any further climate catastrophes:

  • Measure carbon as a metric in all activities.
  • Focus on whole lifecycles and maximising use of existing assets.
  • Prioritise refurbishment over new-builds.
  • Change conversations with clients and encourage bidding processes to include sustainability as a consideration.
  • Encourage organisations to bring in policies to reduce travel.
  • Continue to bring sustainability into conversations.
  • Recognise experts and elevate their input.
  • Change mindsets from the top of the organisations and don’t overly rely on the younger generation to raise sustainability as a topic.
  • Share information and knowledge across sectors to avoid redesigning the wheel.
  • Make sure that sustainability is adequately addressed in a holistic manner from the university/apprentice stage of development.
  • Develop a clear roadmap to sustainability.

Sustainability by evolution, not revolution

It is clear that engineers care about sustainability, and not just talking about it, but acting to tackle climate challenge with the urgency that it deserves.

Across the industry, engineers, especially younger ones, are serious about climate change, and there is much that we can contribute to the industry.

However, while we are changing, it is important to make sure we are not leaving people behind.

As one attendee noted, we must be doing sustainability by evolution, not revolution: “Evolution can be revolutionary. Evolution can be quick. It just needs to be well controlled.”

Get involved

Join in the discussion about latest topics relating to sustainability and climate change at the next ICE London Sustainability reading group on Thursday, 24 February 2022.

  • Micheala Chan, Civil Engineer at Arcadis