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Civil Engineer blog

The Carbon Project: 3 actions engineers can take today

08 July 2021

Be prepared to do something small, rather than nothing at all, says Dr Mike Cook.

The Carbon Project: 3 actions engineers can take today
Calculating your carbon baseline is something civil engineers can start doing today. Image credit: Shutterstock

The ultimate implications of the UK government’s carbon net zero 2050 commitment are that:

  • Carbon is a cost that must be weighed against financial outlay, because time has run out for treating the environmental and social costs of a project as less ‘real’ than capital expenditure
  • Carbon is unsafe, to the degree that opting for high-carbon designs without sufficiently investigating alternatives may be regarded in the future as disregarding health and safety
  • Carbon is a risk that may eventually expose clients, investors, insurers and even project teams to reputational damage or legal challenges

Is there any area in which engineers would advise their clients to incur cost, breach public safety and escalate risk?

As I’ve said before, engineers should be prepared to do something small, rather than nothing at all.

Make your contribution: three actions you can take today

1. Establish the project’s carbon baseline

For every project, even one that is well advanced, estimate the carbon emissions associated with the build (capital carbon – materials + process), operation, usage and end of life. Do this as accurately and transparently as you can, given the information available. Use PAS 2080 guidance to help you.

Even if it's too late to make changes to the design or process, the baseline will enable you to measure the project’s actual against predicted carbon impact at a later date, all necessary information for the UK’s drive towards net zero.

If you can’t find robust information for some areas of your estimate, at the very least make it clear what you based your calculations on and how reliable you consider your data to be. The Inventory for Carbon and Energy, aka the ICE database, provided by Circular Ecology, is a free source of information about materials’ embodied carbon, and is a good place to start.

2. Consider the carbon reduction hierarchy

When you have calculated the project’s carbon baseline, consider whether options remain for reducing emissions associated with any stage of the asset’s lifecycle. It's extremely unlikely that absolutely nothing can be done.

Depending on what stage the project has reached, consider how you might reduce the carbon impact of the asset by:

  • Doing nothing instead – ie. no project
  • Radical adaptation – ie. could the project’s goals be met differently?
  • Changing the materials used
  • Reducing quantities or increasing re-use of materials
  • Adapting any of your processes on and offsite, including reducing travel and movement of materials and plant
  • Incorporating features that will reduce carbon emissions in operation
  • Incorporating measures that support less carbon-intensive user behaviours in future
  • Maximising the adaptability/re-usability of the asset at the end of its life

3. Improve the data

High-quality carbon data from across the infrastructure industry is needed now and engineers are well positioned to provide it. By calculating your project’s carbon baseline, you’ll have first-hand experience of how little data is currently available. It is everyone’s responsibility to help change this.

From today:

  • Improve your organisation’s internal carbon data management, putting systems in place to measure the actual carbon use associated with your project throughout the life of the asset, use PAS 2080 criteria
  • Get to know some of the many tools available to help with carbon measurement, and understand what they offer before choosing which works best for your context
  • Make your decisions as transparent as possible: record where your data comes from, how you measured emissions and the reasons behind your choices
  • If your organisation already has the capability, create a digital twin of the project to keep track of actual against projected carbon usage
  • If you consider your data to be sufficiently robust, contribute to the newly-overhauled Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors’ whole life Building Carbon Database, which is designed to become the main source of carbon benchmarking for the UK construction sector

Read, watch and listen

Carbon awareness is no longer an optional extra. As a minimum, all ICE members should have read and understood these core documents:

It’s a fast-changing field and staying on top of developments can feel bewildering. For the time-strapped engineer, we suggest keeping up with the following:

Lastly, schedule in some time to learn about the wider context:

  • Dr. Mike Cook, Partner, Buro Happold