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What net-zero emissions means for civil engineers

01 August 2019

The UK is aiming for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions within the next 30 years. Greg Guthrie of the ICE’s maritime panel says meeting the target will have profound implications for civil engineers.

What net-zero emissions means for civil engineers
Britain’s net-zero-emission target is designed to mitigate climate-change effects such as increased flood risk. Image credit: Lucy Kaef/Pixabay

On 27 June 2019 the UK government amended the Climate Change Act 2008 to raise its target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by from 80% (of 1990 levels) by 2050 to 100%. This would effectively end the UK's contribution to global warming in just over 30 years.

The new ‘net-zero’ target is in line with a May 2019 recommendation from the UK Committee on Climate Change. It will enable Britain to deliver its commitment to the 2016 Paris Agreement, which the government believes is achievable with known technologies, alongside improvements to people’s lives, and within the economic cost it accepted when legislating the existing 80% target in the 2008 Act.

While many of the policy foundations are in place, a major ramp-up in policy effort and delivery of new solutions is required. Detailed recommendations are made for every part of the economy, including quadrupling of low-carbon-dioxide electricity supply by 2050, near-full ‘decarbonisation’ of heat for buildings by 2050, and a switch to electric vehicles − reaching 100% of new sales in 2040.

Implications for civil engineering

The net-zero target will have profound implications for the civil engineering profession. Clear leadership is needed, with an important role for the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) and other professional bodies in delivering a collective response to this challenge

The CCC’s conclusions were based on an updated understanding of the science of climate impacts and global emissions reductions needed to address climate change in the light of the the Paris Agreement. That understanding includes the updated UK Climate Projections 2018 (UKCP18) published in November by the Meteorological Office.

UKCP18 shows how significant the potential impacts of climate change will be, with predicted global temperature increases of 2−3.7°C and sea level rises of 1−2 m by 2100, plus increasing risk of droughts and periods of more intense rainfall.

The changes represent a new playing field for civil engineers. The profession can no longer rely purely on past experience to define what the future holds, making it far more challenging to plan, design and deliver new infrastructure as well as enhancements to existing infrastructure.

Mitigation and adaption

The CCC report set out the fundamental need for mitigation of the causes of climate change and, together with UKCP18, specified the challenge of how civil engineers respond to, and plan for, those climate change effects already built into the global system. Adaptation is the other side of the coin, and these two publications will be key references for civil engineers in coming years.

A practical next step for civil engineers is to incorporate the UKCP18 evidence in the profession’s approach to professional competence, design and thinking. This raises a range of issues including how to plan for uncertainty over different timescales, ensuring good value for money now but with an eye to the future-proofing of present day investment, and ensuring decisions made now do not lead down unsustainable dead ends in future.

This article is based on the authors’ briefing article in the latest issue (172 CE3) of the ICE Civil Engineering journal.

  • Greg Guthrie, Coastal Engineer, Royal HaskoningDHV