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Collaboration is key to climate action – where do civil engineers come in?

31 August 2023

Professor Jim Hall highlights the importance of working together across sectors and countries to adapt to a changing planet.

Collaboration is key to climate action – where do civil engineers come in?
Learnings from the Thames Estuary 2100 programme have been picked up globally. Image credit: Shutterstock

If we’re to meet the climate challenge head on, and create a world fit for the future, we need to work together.

Climate change doesn’t differentiate based on borders.

The terrible wildfire season in Canada, the worst on record, left skies over New York with an orange haze.

A recent study concluded that ice melting in Greenland due to rising temperatures could lead to catastrophic climate impacts in western Europe.

Collaboration is needed at sector level, by sharing ideas with colleagues across projects and companies, and on a larger, global scale too.

Countries and governments worldwide need to work closely and share findings in areas that encourage and enhance climate action.

The adaptation challenge

Adaptation is an inherently interdisciplinary problem.

It needs input from climate scientists, engineers, economists and policy makers.

We’re increasingly looking to nature-based solutions, which require knowledge of ecology. And all of this requires monitoring, sensing and data analysis.

It’s an exciting and rapidly developing field.

The role of civil engineers

Civil engineers are the creators and custodians of infrastructure systems.

As problem solvers, we’re well placed to tackle the climate challenges facing society and pioneer solutions to reduce carbon and add social value.

There’s lots of ways we can, and are, doing this.

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For instance, we need to make progress on decarbonisation.

One way organisations can start accelerating these efforts is by implementing PAS 2080, a global standard from the British Standards Institution.

The ICE was pleased to sponsor the recent update of PAS 2080, allowing it to be available to all, free-of-charge.

Through consistent application of this standard across all infrastructure projects, we can begin to join the dots between national net zero policy and individual project goals.

And what can be achieved in one area, will undoubtedly influence others.

Systems thinking

Infrastructure doesn’t exist in isolation – it forms part of an interdependent network of systems that will be affected if one of its elements is compromised.

My research group at the University of Oxford, the Oxford Programme for Sustainable Infrastructure Systems, specialises in this.

We build systems models of infrastructure networks at a range of different scales, up to the global scale.

We use these models to stress-test these systems’s resilience to climate-related shocks, allowing us to identify and prioritise interventions.

What we learn about these systems stands to benefit countries all over the world.

Looking further afield

Britain has been innovating in climate action for many years.

This work has led to many important breakthroughs in how we can adapt our working practices, not just to the benefit of the UK, but internationally as well.

For example, the Thames Estuary 2100 programme led to innovative work on sea level rise uncertainties, flood risk analysis and adaptive management.

The findings of these were picked up internationally.

Knowledge sharing is something our sector continues to strive for, as we recognise that no one can solve such a huge challenge on their own.

I’ll be speaking about how Britain can ensure its infrastructure is resilient at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ (IMechE) inaugural International Conference and Workshop on Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience.

It’s an excellent opportunity to hear about the latest developments and ideas from a global audience.

The engineering community is ready and eager to adapt infrastructure to the impact of climate change.

There are many questions in our future, but engineers are used to making dependable choices in the face of uncertainty.

Let’s discuss.

Take part

Interested in hearing more about the role our sector plays in meeting the climate change challenge?

Sign-up to the attend the IMechE conference – ICE members get a 10% discount on tickets.

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