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Civil Engineer blog

The Carbon Project: introducing the series

17 June 2021

ICE's The Carbon Project is producing blogs and technical papers that will arm engineers with everything they need to know about the journey to net zero infrastructure.

The Carbon Project: introducing the series
What does a low-carbon future look like in terms of possibilities? Image credit: Shutterstock

The steps needed to reverse climate change are overwhelmingly couched in terms of sacrifice. If we are to avoid catastrophe, we need to build less, travel less, shop less, consume less – these are the messages the public hears daily, and the results of non-compliance are framed in apocalyptic terms: floods, famine, pestilence and war.

Engineers have a different approach. Our profession is literally born of challenges: without the human need to live, eat, work and travel better, there would be no engineers. Tackling climate change is just such a challenge – possibly the biggest and most urgent we have faced, but nonetheless rich with possibilities.

Instead of sacrifice, what does a low-carbon future look like in terms of opportunity? Better health, new industries, improved public transport, less commuting, clean air, quieter roads, lower heating bills, innovative cuisine, a restored countryside rich with life – these popular objectives are all benefits of the huge reductions in carbon emissions to which the UK is committed.

Even if they sound utopian to a concerned or sceptical public, the engineering profession knows that such goals can be achieved.

A brief history of UK commitments to reversing climate change. Image credit: The Carbon Project
A brief history of UK commitments to reversing climate change. Image credit: The Carbon Project. Click image to enlarge

It’s almost two years since the UK government signed the nation’s carbon net zero 2050 commitment into law. The ambition of this target and the pace and scope of change required to meet it are not a matter for debate. It’s also widely accepted that, given the interdependence of the issues involved, only a whole systems approach is sufficient to achieve the changes. The urgent questions for our members revolve around ‘how’.

This series, published by ICE’s The Carbon Project from the findings of specially-convened working groups, aims to help engineers in their daily activities by providing a synthesis of what is currently known, coupled with recommendations for action.

It is true that not all the answers are available yet, and many are incomplete. This is to be expected, because engineering itself helps drive the evolution of practice which is relied on worldwide. We need to be leaders in behaviour change, anticipating rather than waiting for advances in policy and the accumulation of knowledge across different sectors.

But as a profession, as businesses and as individuals, there are already useful actions we can take every day that will contribute to a sustainable future. The first is to keep yourself informed.

The challenge for infrastructure

Civil engineering faces very specific challenges when tackling change. The vast majority of the UK's infrastructure assets are already in place and are in constant use. Moreover, they were designed for a particular way of life – one that has a high carbon cost.

Timescales are long: new projects can take decades to plan and, once underway, are bound by multiple contracts and sometimes fierce public and political expectations. Any changes must be undertaken with minimal disruption for users, and this discourages all but the most urgent interference with business as usual.

Given the complexity and momentum of infrastructure planning and building, there is great temptation to simply give in to inertia. If there’s so little you can do, why do anything at all?

To mitigate such thinking, it is essential for engineers to understand their role as part of the systems approach to tackling climate change. In such an approach, every part of the system must contribute, no matter how minor individual actions may appear.

These changes do not need to be extreme in themselves because when taken altogether they can add up to radical change. And in infrastructure, our great challenge is also a strength: small changes to a large asset have the potential for far bigger impact than large changes to small assets. How infrastructure is made and used is within our remit, and we must use it.

What this series offers

The next instalment in this series looks at how it is engineers' responsibility to keep whole-life carbon reduction on every project agenda. In doing so, we will help to close the gap between the stated ambitions of government and practice on the ground.

Government policy on low carbon

  • The Green Book: Appraisal and Evaluation in Central Government aims to set out “transparent and consistent procedures for assessment and evaluation to ensure that public funds are spent efficiently and are spent on proposals that will be of the greatest benefit to society”.It was updated in 2020 to tackle the dominance of cost-saving being the lead driver in appraisals
  • The Construction Playbook sets out plans for how the government will work with the construction sector to ensure public sector works are delivered faster, better and greener
  • The National Infrastructure Strategy published in November 2020, describes UK government plans to transform infrastructure based around three central objectives, including meeting the UK’s net zero emissions target by 2050

The government has also indicated strongly that its approach to infrastructure projects is changing to support the UK’s net zero target. The publication of the new Green Book in December 2020, along with an updated Construction Playbook and the information contained in the Sixth Carbon Budget, indicate a shift in emphasis towards the social value of projects, including minimising whole-life carbon emissions, and away from emphasis on short-term economic advantage.

With the clock ticking on the UK's carbon reduction commitments, a cultural shift is underway towards a system of assessment in which, in years to come, carbon expenditure will carry equal weight to cash. The engineering profession has thrown its weight behind this shift. Slowly-developing infrastructure projects risk being overtaken by faster changes in policy and public expectation unless engineers work now to help their clients balance carbon against financial cost throughout the life of the asset.

Our third instalment looks at how the UK is doing now in its progress towards net zero: which sectors have shown the greatest and least progress to date, what we do next, and how this will be measured. Again, the agenda for civil engineering is distinct, because a far greater proportion of an infrastructure asset’s carbon impact relates to the behaviour of its users than to its construction, operation and maintenance.

User behaviour is therefore very much the civil engineer’s business: not only in calculating the whole-life carbon cost of an asset, but because a carbon net zero society requires infrastructure that both invites and responds to social change.

The Carbon Project blog series will cover

Increasingly, to reduce capital carbon expenditure, creating a responsive infrastructure will involve reuse, adaptation and, where new assets are required, design for a longer life.

Later in the series, we examine the concept of the circular economy, exploring successes in other sectors and investigating the challenges for infrastructure.

We look at how adaptation and mitigation are essential ingredients in infrastructure planning and development for the future, and outline some of the negative emissions technologies that are showing promise or already in use.

Finally, we will revisit behavioural change, including change within the industry and how this must be further incentivised to hasten progress.

Ultimately, each of us is a user of the nation’s infrastructure and an inhabitant of the planet that our lifestyle is costing dear. Yet we know that if we succeed in adapting our practice to support a carbon-neutral society with infrastructure that is pleasant, convenient and cheap to use, people will welcome the change. If this is not in engineers’ hands, then in whose?

  • Tim Chapman, Partner and Director at Boston Consulting Group