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Climate change is overlooked in infrastructure projects, civil engineers warn

13 July 2021

New ICE report explores the importance of good design principles within the project lifecycle.

Climate change is overlooked in infrastructure projects, civil engineers warn

More than 60% of civil engineers feel climate change is not prioritised sufficiently in infrastructure design and delivery, according to new ICE research.

A survey of 900 UK-based ICE members found that more than half (66%) of infrastructure professionals felt greenhouse gas emissions were given less or far less importance than they would like. Some 59% said the same for climate change adaptation. A lack of joined-up thinking (47%) was seen as the primary blocker for both issues, while absence from the project brief (44%) was second.

The survey, carried out in collaboration with the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) Design Group and based around its Design Principles for National Infrastructure, informs the What Makes Good Design? report published today.

The report presents findings around civil engineers’ awareness and understanding of good design, making a series of recommendations for industry stakeholders and policy decision-makers.

Designing for quality of life or climate change?

Among its findings, the survey showed:

  • While many infrastructure professionals consider greenhouse gas emissions and climate change adaptation sometimes, this does not always or often happen.
  • Only 15% of civil engineers consider greenhouse gas emissions and climate change adaptation at all times during their work.

  • When considering the impact of their work and the issues surrounding it, civil engineers consider demographics the least and quality of life the most.

  • Engineers consider "improvements to people’s quality of life" more than any other issue in the survey – more than three-quarters of respondents (76%) claimed that they considered the issue always or very often. Only 4% said they never or rarely considered it.

ICE President Rachel Skinner said: "Civil engineers use their influence to help address society’s biggest challenges – the accelerating climate emergency, population growth, dwindling biodiversity, water scarcity and urbanisation. Design expertise is absolutely pivotal to creating the right solutions and long-run outcomes for people and our natural systems, today and for generations to come.

"Good design begins at the moment that initial concepts are identified to solve specific problems in a particular context, and continues through the project lifecycle. The importance of good design is now, quite rightly, reflected in the government’s decision to have board-level design champions on all nationally significant infrastructure projects."

ICE Fellow Judith Sykes, the report’s steering group lead and NIC Design Group member, said: "In the context of the industry’s net zero aspirations, it may surprise some that climate is regarded as the least addressed design principle within the survey.

"Good design remains critical if we are to use our limited resources to find creative approaches to meeting our carbon reduction targets, deliver on the levelling-up agenda and create healthy communities.

"With a greater understanding of how the principles are understood, this research enables us to improve our strategic decision-making processes and foster a design culture in infrastructure delivery. This requires collaborating with organisations, such as ICE, that are committed to elevating design practice."

Seeking outcome-based solutions

Respondents were surveyed on topics related to the design principles of climate, people, places and value, with at least a quarter of respondents (27%) feeling every issue was given insufficient importance.

When asked what would encourage the industry to focus more on outcome-based solutions, the top answer was incorporating a business model that valued outcomes (59%), followed by looking beyond the boundaries of the site and project (56%) and more collaboration with complementary expertise (51%).

Myriad responses came back from different sectors:

  • those working in civil engineering structures highlighting the importance of iterative design and being able to question the brief (54%);
  • those in building and property suggested changes were needed in standards and processes (47%) as well as culture (56%); and
  • the water sector underlined the importance of engaging with end users (42%).

Next steps

Based on the survey and subsequent report, ICE is creating a climate literacy programme and plans to mirror that in its requirements for both membership and fellowship grades. It will also develop its continuing professional development (CPD) programme to convey best practice in design, in collaboration with other institutions.

Elsewhere, the report recommends for frameworks for people, places and value to sit alongside existing carbon accounting tools such as PAS 2080. ICE has begun working with industry partners towards an update for the standard.

  • Matthew Rogerson, media relations executive at ICE