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Carbon cutting: beyond rhetoric

Atkins | 15 Sep 2010 | Comments

Climate change is a major driver in the biggest change to our economy and our society in over a century. As a consequence, the engineering profession is facing an inconvenient truth: we must act now if we are going to build our low carbon future. Keith Clarke, former chief executive of Atkins and invited lecturer for the 2010 Brunel Lecture Series, calls for action.

Climate change has put the engineering profession on the threshold of the biggest fundamental change to our economy and society since the Industrial Revolution: the shift to a low carbon economy. And this shift needs to be substantially underway by 2020 and largely complete by 2050, giving us 40 years to transform the fundamentals of the world’s economies. In engineering terms, this is right now.

The drivers for change are clear and the initial framework for action is in place. Many nations have now signed the Copenhagen Accord, matching this agreement with national regulation to limit CO2 emissions (or external energy supplies). The construction sector is making great progress in understanding the strategic changes that must be made to our infrastructure. We have been refining the idea of Carbon Critical Design for two years or more. But it’s still not enough: the time has come to turn ideas into action.

The first step is to become truly “carbon aware”: to understand where carbon is embedded in the lifecycle of any project and learn how to reduce it as much as possible. While we are still defining the specific engineering components this would involve, we can help create a vision of this new society.

De-carbonising the global economy and ensuring the progressive delivery of a low carbon society require a deep understanding and managing of carbon dioxide. In order to control atmospheric levels of CO2, the world must change its primary fuel source, from the combustion of fossil fuels to electricity generated from zero or ultra-low carbon sources. The consequent, almost universal, electrification of our energy supply will cause a significant re-balancing of the built environment and the need for a new energy infrastructure. There is a growing appreciation that CO2e must become the primary design determinant for new build and retrofit activities alike.

The engineering profession needs to develop and share tools to quantify and identify where savings can be made, be open and communicate with professional colleagues, locally and internationally, and develop different skills and different resources. Members in the built community – from engineers to architects and their extended supply chain – need to reach out, share knowledge, improve the skill base and influence the broadest possible audience.

Role call: tomorrow’s engineer

The role of the engineer will be paramount if progress is to be made. Due to the technical complexity involved, he or she will inevitably be the definer of the problem as well as the provider of the solution. The goal is to:

  • minimise the use of all resources required by all designs;
  • significantly improve the resource efficiency of construction and manufacturing operations;
  • significantly reduce the use of operational carbon; and
  • make carbon-intensive engineering socially unacceptable.

These challenges are deeply serious and the engineering community must make some fundamental changes in professional behaviours. Revolutions are uncomfortable and possibly prolonged. They are iterative and we will all make mistakes.

Our engineering forebears, like Isambard Kingdom Brunel, made the occasional big mistake, but were honest about them and tried to learn from them, pressing on to greater things.

As we continue to develop our understanding of carbon-intensive design, the construction sector can map activity against carbon budgets, prioritise and plan. We must recognise how we can meet the incredibly tight timescales we face: 2020 is around the corner and 2050 is closer than we care to admit. The challenges vary across the continents but many elements of the solutions are common and readily shared.

In short, this revolution must be built on technical innovation. It is not a regulatory challenge. We need to value energy and the way we account for it in a different way, reflecting local conditions and circumstances but also sharing knowledge and information wherever possible. If our society is going to make the transition from fossil based fuels to electricity generated from renewable sources, then we need to create a real vision of what this electrified society will look like.

Time for action

Speed of change is also critical. In the last half-century, it has taken decades for big infrastructure projects to move from concept to delivery – unlike Victorian civil engineers, who exhibited a sense of real urgency. The engineering profession must move faster, not only because the designs we create will form part of the low carbon economy, but also because the building codes and standards must be written along the way. We must go back to first principles in relation to design approaches and think in a low carbon way.

With this urgency in mind, in April 2010 Atkins launched a suite of eight new tools to help clients and partners in a range of industries tackle the challenge more proactively. The result of some 18 months of research and development, the products are a set of generic and market specific decision-support tools, assessing tangible changes that could help businesses take a lead in the low carbon world we want.

One scenario-planning tool, for example – named “Relativity” – can create a series of charts comparing the carbon effects when different approaches are taken. Another, dubbed “Knowledgebase”, can calculate and evaluate the final cost of a low carbon design option drawing on project data previously accumulated.

Others are more specific, however – such as analysing the carbon impacts of trends, including traffic patterns and typical individual travel behaviour, with the aim of using hard data to encourage greater use of alternative transport in the long term.

A further tool, “Buildings”, uses construction, services and occupancy parameters to estimate a building’s overall carbon footprint, while Atkins Remote Technology (ArT) has been designed to help firms understand, and then optimise, their daily energy use across multiple office sites.

As a rule, it should be possible to reduce CO2e usage by 15-20 per cent simply by applying what is already known, but the next 30 per cent will require even further product innovation and investment. Specifically, as a profession, we must:

  • effectively de-carbonise the energy sector (a 75 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, while allowing for major carbon investment in new renewables and the transmission and distribution grid);
  • halve the carbon used to operate commercial buildings while allowing for carbon investment in retrofit and new build;
  • halve the carbon used to operate the transport sector (while allowing for mass electrification, which will also reduce operational emissions);
  • allow for an increase in the use of carbon in the public sector to take account of investment in the infrastructure;
  • halve the carbon used to supply the residential sector (while allowing for carbon investment in retrofit and new build);
  • significantly improve the carbon efficiency of the industrial sector while recognising that we will need to use oil as the base material for many essential products; and
  • significantly improve construction and manufacturing efficiencies to avoid waste generation.

There is an overriding need for engineers to show significant leadership in order to build on the reputation of the profession. A sense of professional pride will be central to delivering these necessary changes. And we must not blame government, clients or the recession. Engineers have to demonstrate what is feasible so that governments and the financial community know where to go.

Brunel Lecture Series 2010: Keith Clarke, ICE Fellow and Atkins chief executive, was invited to become the lecturer for the 2010 ICE International Brunel Lecture Programme, which began in May 2010. This was the eighth lecture in the Brunel series and was delivered to audiences across the globe over the 18 months. The lecture focused on the enormous challenge climate change poses to the modern world, in particular to engineers who must revolutionise the way they plan, design and build vital new infrastructure. The series was established by ICE in 1999 in memory of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

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