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Keith Clarke’s call to action

Atkins’ director of sustainability and former chief executive Keith Clarke is currently delivering the Brunel International Lecture series on behalf of the Institution of Civil Engineers. Here he gives his views on the challenges of tackling climate change from the point of view of the engineering design sector.

Today we find ourselves at the start of a new industrial revolution. We can call it the Carbon Reduction Age. It differs from revolutions of the past in that it is not about ‘more for more’, it is about ‘more for less’ with ‘less’ measured in carbon as well as a traditional financial cost. This is easy to say, hard to achieve, as we need to make sure the associated impact on society is minimal. This is the only way a universally carbon efficient world will become more than an idealist’s dream.

A driver for change

As I write, world leaders are trying to define the political map to a low carbon society at the COP16 climate change talks in Cancun, Mexico. Politicians, expert negotiators, even carbon traders all have a place at the change table but my argument is based around the seat engineers must occupy. If we take a lesson from history, we see the last industrial revolution was pioneered by engineers who didn’t just answer questions and solve problems that were put in front of them – they defined the questions. They led social and economic change and we must do the same.

It has long been accepted that the world will one day have to move away from fossil fuel as it is a finite resource. But climate change and energy security radically accelerates the necessary rate of change. So, with the trajectory set, the race is on in every sector to iterate learning at a rate that historically has only occurred in wartime - and that means acting quickly.

What do we do next?

As a worldwide engineering design firm, with over 3000 engineers in the US, we focus on what we can touch. This started with us deciding that reducing carbon in our designs was not an optional issue, it was part of the day job.

The next step is to equip our staff with the knowledge and tools to allow them to have meaningful conversations on carbon efficiency with clients. All of this was, and is, happening while we are still defining the questions we are trying to answer. It’s complex, it’s challenging, but as engineers it’s the kind of thing that should make you want to get out of bed in the morning.

So what is the true role of the engineer in this new currency of carbon? What can we control and influence? It is not our responsibility to try to impose a utopian vision of society or to engineer austerity; what we need to do is to use our abilities as engineers to provide design choices that meet the demands of a low carbon economy. To meet a carbon budget we must be able to design on the basis of carbon as the primary determinant, to go back to the start in relation to design approaches and think in a truly low carbon way, and this in turn will address water and resource security.

A need for speed

What is missing from this quest for low carbon is a sense of urgency. The UK does have a Climate Change Act which is driving good behaviours, and at Cancun, President Obama’s lead climate negotiator Todd Stern said the US would stick to its pledge of cutting greenhouse gases by around 17% by 2020. However, this is only the framework in which we must work – it doesn’t drive us as hard as the market. We must move faster as a profession and avoid inertia; design codes and quality management systems are all well and good but they mustn’t impede progress. A high speed of change is critical.

This will take considerable intellectual rigour on the behalf of engineers and their professional bodies. But here is an opportunity to redefine our processes and challenge assumptions. The low carbon society is going to need smart commercial solutions, and to achieve this we need to innovate rigorously. We must show ownership and leadership, be bold and enhance the status of the engineer, brave the uncertain and dare to think differently. We are limited only by our own ambition and ingenuity.

The stage we’re at right now is now akin to what the UK’s engineering father figure, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, would have experienced in his day: largely conceptual questions with little empirical knowledge, codes becoming outdated quickly and continually, calculations rudimentary with many assumptions. It’s a tremendous engineering challenge.

We must make a concerted effort to move beyond the rhetoric.

Our profession has been intellectualising the idea of Carbon Critical Design for years. But the time has come for action. For engineers this means moving outside our comfort zone, taking risks, learning rapidly and revolutionising our way of thinking. The challenges are serious and the necessary changes radical. But we must promote action and a growing sense of engineering citizenship, and engineer a revolution in our own field. We become, as built environment professionals, a fundamental part of ensuring competitive efficient societies, where people who ‘do’ rather than ‘watch’ are valued.