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Why now is the time for civil engineers to act on climate change

30 September 2021

lAs world leaders prepare to descend on Glasgow for the COP26 climate summit, calls for action on climate change and its impacts have never been louder. Mark Hansford explains how ICE is arming members with the tools to act.

Why now is the time for civil engineers to act on climate change
London Mayor Sadiq Khan has upped the ante ahead of COP26 by warning that half of London’s hospitals and a quarter of its railway stations are now at risk of flooding.

Whether it's Prime Minister Boris Johnson quoting Kermit the Frog, Insulate Britain protesters gluing themselves to the M25 or London Mayor Sadiq Khan warning that a fifth of all schools and a quarter of all railway stations in the capital are at risk of flooding, climate change and its impacts have never been higher on the news agenda.

It is all part of the build up to the COP26 climate change summit that takes place in Glasgow next month, where world leaders will come together with the intention of making serious funding and policy commitments to tackle climate change; both mitigating its impact by keeping global warming below the 1.5°C level that scientists agree would be catastrophic to the planet, and adapting to the effects – rising sea levels, increased storm severity and increased droughts - that are already inevitable.

Johnson, in a pre-COP26 speech to the United Nations in New York, described the summit as a "turning point for humanity" and called on countries to take responsibility for "the destruction we are inflicting, not just upon our planet but ourselves".

He called on fellow world leaders to make some bold policy actions, such as only allowing zero-emission vehicles to be on sale across the world by 2040, to end the use of coal power in the developing world by 2040 and in the developed world by 2030, and to halt and reverse the loss of trees and biodiversity by 2030.

And, amid the serious warnings, he also attempted to strike a humorous note at points, including saying Kermit the Frog had been wrong when he sang It's Not Easy Bein' Green.

Analysts and experts applauded Johnson’s speech, and the commitments he is seeking. But how do they relate to civil engineering and civil engineers? Surely these are policy decisions, not engineering ones.

Here, other headline-grabbers have perhaps more to say, not least London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who has released new analysis that shows nearly half of London’s hospitals, one in five schools and a quarter of the city’s rail stations are already at risk of flooding.

And, the analysis warns, if temperatures continue to rise at current rates, the London Underground could become unbearably hot for more than a month every year.

Khan timed release of the analysis to immediately follow Johnson’s New York speech, in part to put pressure on the prime minister to come good on his rhetoric (recent research showed his government had imposed less than a quarter of the policies needed to clean up the economy, with much-delayed efforts on home insulation vividly being highlighted by the Insulate Britain protests).

But equally, to launch a pre-COP26 city-wide campaign to inspire all Londoners – individuals, businesses and communities – to “take action”.

But again, what action?

As ICE President Rachel Skinner has challenged civil engineers in a follow-up video to Shaping Zero, bookmarking the end of her year as the institution's156th president: what are you going to do?

ICE State of the Nation 2021: encouraging immediate action

Launching on 5 October, one month ahead of the COP26 summit, ICE’s annual State of the Nation report will seek to directly address this, offering six ways for civil engineers to act on climate change.

The report is deliberately practical and seeks to tackle head-on concerns raised by members in regional workshops carried out throughout the summer.

The workshops revealed that ICE members do believe that there is an urgent role for the civil engineer to drive the net-zero agenda, but they lack clarity on the extent of their influence, particularly with the public and infrastructure end-user.

We found that this is likely to be because there is a dissonance between themselves as individuals making low carbon choices and themselves as civil engineers at their workplace.

Workshop participants felt that more training on how to communicate effectively and consult more widely was needed. Attendees agreed that they were bound by the client’s brief, deadlines and budgets.

This underpins our finding that civil engineers often look at the ICE, policymakers and the client to lead change to enable them to think more holistically. This however discourages them to take immediate actions.

That, then, is the mission of State of the Nation 2021: to encourage immediate action.

Because, as UN secretary general António Guterres put it, somewhat lost in the noise of Kermit and the M25, "We are weeks away from COP26, but seemingly light years away from reaching our climate action targets. We must get serious. And we must act fast."

Watch SoN 2021

  • Mark Hansford, director of engineering knowledge at Institution of Civil Engineers