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5 ways civil engineers can put the COP26 pledges into action

22 March 2022

The UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, produced a bewildering array of pledges, from the phasing down of coal to investing in nature-based solutions. Professor Jim Hall explores what they actually mean for engineers.

5 ways civil engineers can put the COP26 pledges into action
COP26 introduced pledges that are changing the way the civil engineering industry works. Image credit: Rafapress/Shutterstock

COP26 produced commitments that are changing the way our industry works and we need to be ready for some dramatic changes in the future.

With 54% of the UK’s total carbon emissions, and some 70% worldwide being linked to infrastructure, civil engineers are critical in the implementation of solutions to climate change. Infrastructure systems also need to be made resilient to the impacts of climate change that we are increasingly experiencing.

As members of an international institution, we all need to work together, help each other, and share best practice for the benefit of humanity.

With experts from across the industry, the ICE has produced a working paper, Moving beyond COP26, summarising what these commitments mean for the future of infrastructure and how we can all help put them into action.

1. Commit to carbon reduction

The foremost aim of the COP process is to reduce global carbon emissions.

With such a large share of emissions linked to infrastructure, we all have an ethical obligation to try to reduce the carbon intensity of our work.

COP26 made progress towards more consistent and transparent carbon markets, and the buying and selling of carbon credits at a national level to get to net zero as a country.

Under Article 6, there will be financial mechanisms in place to penalise or incentivise governments, corporates and large projects to tackle carbon.

As the price of high-carbon activities increases, carbon reduction will be more and more integral to projects.

To save carbon, there will be a further shift away from new build and towards reuse of existing infrastructure and incorporation of technology to achieve outcomes in different ways.

2. Expect to account for carbon

Most engineers can quote the unit weight of concrete vs soil - can we do the same for carbon?

Measuring and monitoring the carbon associated with our industry is key to making carbon management a routine aspect of infrastructure design and to knowing if our interventions are delivering the desired change.

In line with the emission reduction targets and commitments, it’s likely that whole-life carbon accounting and management will become contractual.

Sharing carbon-related knowledge and best practice is one of the aims of the Carbon Project and the recent Meaningful Measurement for Whole-Life Carbon in Infrastructure report contains a range of resources.

ICE is also leading an update of PAS2080 and its associated guidance. This will be aligned with recent legislation and made easier to apply.

This key reference document is increasingly becoming the go-to specification for carbon management in infrastructure and the built environment. There is also an ambition for it to be enhanced to an ISO standard to widen its application internationally.

3. Financing of infrastructure is changing

With the finance sector agreeing to align with net zero, investors at all levels will be looking for clean investment opportunities.

To secure these funds, civil engineers need to demonstrate that they are switching to sustainable and greener materials, decarbonising the value chain, integrating carbon neutral services and products, and embracing new technologies.

Private financing of projects will therefore become increasingly dependent on meeting carbon targets.

4. Finding solutions in nature

The term ‘nature-based solutions’ was removed from the Glasgow Climate Pact at a late stage in the negotiations, but the final text refers to “the importance of protecting, conserving, and restoring nature and ecosystems”.

As engineers, we are good at getting performance out of a complex set of systems and materials. In many respects that is exactly what nature-based solutions are.

Civil engineers should increasingly consider themselves to be ‘engineers of nature’, working with natural solutions to substitute for or complement hard infrastructure.

As civil engineers, we can help by educating ourselves on what nature-based solutions can and can’t do to help build understanding among our clients.

5. Preparing for new extremes

While we have always designed infrastructure for extreme conditions, the definition of ‘extreme’ is shifting in relation to heat, wind, floods, and droughts.

Modelling shows that consequences of climate change are now inevitable, regardless of how quickly we meet carbon emission reduction targets.

Resilience was a central theme in Glasgow and we will see even more emphasis on it this year at COP27.

Different countries will face difference challenges.

The most urgent need may be in the global south, but the recent UK Climate Change Risk Assessment showed that 1,691km of rail and 450 rail stations in England alone are currently exposed to a significant risk of surface water flooding.

Future scenario planning will include things like flood implications if the sea level is higher, and with changing rainfall and the effects of more severe droughts on water storage.

These climate change impacts can then be incorporated more consistently when undertaking risk assessments for large infrastructure projects and climate resilience can be included at every stage of a project.

Get involved

To find out more, read the Moving beyond COP26 working paper.

Read the paper

  • Prof Jim Hall, professor of climate and environmental risks at University of Oxford