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The future challenges of embracing sustainability

20 August 2020

As we approach Earth Overshoot Day, the day on which our demands on the planet outstrip its ability to sustain us, Tim Hou looks at some of the challenges we face in order to #MoveTheDate.

The future challenges of embracing sustainability
Global warming will have major consequences for civil engineers (image credit: Shutterstock)

No longer blissfully ignorant, the world is finally waking up to the threat of climate change. The statistics are powerfully damning - we are running out of time, and more needs to be done if we want to truly combat the problem. It is clear that we need to take serious action within the construction industry, to make amends for the damage of the past.

As an ICE President’s Future Leader, I have been given an opportunity to gain a valuable insight into the challenges that our industry is facing when trying to improve our sustainability. Below I have highlighted some of the key challenges that I can see we need to overcome.

The key challenges

It is important to first consider that global warming will have major consequences for civil engineers. Rising water levels, increasing natural disasters and struggling drainage systems are just some of the problems that the profession will be required to solve, not to mention the problems that these effects will have on existing projects. In the UK, we are already struggling to meet the demand for engineers, and global warming will only compound this problem.

Estimation of earth overshoot days by country
Estimation of earth overshoot days by country. Click image to enlarge.

Earth Overshoot Day is a symbolic date on which humanity's consumption for the year outstrips Earth's capacity to regenerate those resources that year. Historically the day has been creeping earlier and earlier showing how we are getting closer and closer to disaster. However due to the impacts of Covid-19 on our consumption, the date has fallen from the 29 July in 2019 to 22 August in 2020. This shows just how much of an impact we can influence and hopefully provides the message that it takes drastic action to make even a tiny impact.

Harnessing innovation

Innovation will be imperative to helping the UK progress to a more sustainable nation, however we need to be quicker to embrace new ideas. Civil engineers are notoriously known for our love for traditional, but it is important that we also look to the future and how construction is changing. By using new construction methods and materials we are able to make real progress in reducing carbon and creating a more sustainable future.

In addition to innovation, technology is enabling the industry to not only improve the way we do things in the future, but also gain a better understanding of the impacts of the way we are doing things today. We need to look at how we can use technology in better ways to help create more sustainable buildings. Whether this is through smarter materials, new systems or advanced modelling, technology has a key role to play in our sustainability.

Still a long way to go

While sustainability has grown real momentum in the industry, we still have a long way to go. Even though most civil engineers understand the concept of sustainability, we need to do more to understand how it can be applied to our day jobs. The ICE and the industry must maintain its enthusiasm for learning to help develop its knowledge whilst also staying current to a fast-moving topic. Climate change and carbon have been making real progress within construction, but it is important to remember that sustainability incorporates so much more, and we as engineers need to ensure that we are considering the full breadth of sustainability.

Future-proofing designs

We must also consider the construction, operation, maintenance and demolition or re-purposing at the very start of the project, which is difficult when design lives can be over 100 years. We need to do everything we can right now to future-proof our designs. Certifications such as BREEAM are helping clients and the industry better understand the cost benefits that can be achieved throughout the lifecycle of the project, and more should be done to encourage and develop these schemes.

One of the biggest blockers to progress is that we are still competing over sustainability. Issues such as inequality, climate change and poverty are problems that are impacting the entire industry, so why do we develop solutions and not share them? We need to work together to solve these problems more effectively. This involves clients too - as often they are expected to take the first step in demonstrating the value they place on sustainable practices. All you have to do is look at the number of carbon calculators there are in the industry and you can see the amount of repeated effort that could be put to better use. Also, by sharing new knowledge and ideas, we can all progress together to achieve one common goal.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals
The UN Sustainable Development Goals

ICE's Sustainability Route Map

It is exciting to see the Institution embracing the challenge, with their work on Sustainability and the Net Zero agenda being driven by the Sustainability Route Map and the Carbon Project. These projects aim to tackle some of the challenges I have outlined above, but of course this is not a problem the ICE can solve on its own. It is only by bringing the industry together to coordinate efforts, share resources and learn from each other that we will be able to work in the collaborative, systems-wide approach that is needed.

We are not on target to meet our original target of an 80% reduction in net carbon by 2050 - so how are we going to be net-zero? The SDGs were developed in 2015, with the goal to achieving the targets by 2030 - but are we anywhere close? It will take a multitude of actions by the entire industry to help us to achieve these goals and we need to act imminently if we value the future of our industry and our planet. We have demonstrated the industry can produce sustainable solutions, but we need to do more to ensure that this is business as usual, rather than a rarity.

  • Tim Hou , chartered civil engineer at Mott MacDonald