Embedding climate change and carbon in our decisions

Climate Change and Sustainability June 21, 2021

By Jack Mason, Technical Director, Binnies

Climate change targets, and achieving net-zero carbon emissions, appear to be everywhere at the moment. These targets are absolutely necessary, but we must also ensure that we have a means of delivering them. As the proverb says, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Those of us who work in energy, power, transport, water and waste need to recognise that we can do much more than most to facilitate the change needed; we can be the “climate superheroes” if we so choose. For example, if you choose to cycle to work rather than take the car, you could save about 0.5-1.5 t CO2e over a year. However, if you are a designer or contractor, you can save the equivalent amount of carbon at work within hours or even minutes. For example, if you reduce the amount of concrete used by a few cubic metres, or design with the project’s climate footprint as a key design parameter, then you can easily save the equivalent carbon. This is not to say that cycling is a bad idea, it is just that we, working in our industry, can do so much more. Making these and similar carbon-savings comparisons helps us to visualise the difference that we can make with relatively small changes.

But what do we need to do to achieve this transformation? First, clients must demand low-carbon performance and that we demonstrably go beyond “business as usual”. Second, the industry needs to make it clear that we expect clients to demand this change and that the industry will work with them to achieve it. We need to engage with clients and explain why it matters to them: to their reputation, their investor relations and supporting their own carbon goals. At the same time, we need to empower our workforce to embed carbon as a key design parameter in everything we do. This requires additional training for our workforce and the whole supply chain.

Ultimately, there is a designer and a contractor team that deliver the client’s project. Only when the need for climate change reduction is embedded and the information and skills are available can carbon and wider sustainability targets be delivered. Engineers are often skilled in understanding, for example, structural forces, design for durability, pump performance, and the all-encompassing drivers of both capital and operating expenditure. However, I fear that carbon often remains an ethereal concept; still an aspiration rather than a key design requirement. However, this is changing.

Visualising carbon is a key issue and is something we are striving to address at RSK. Good designers and contractors have an instinctive feel for where design forces are likely to be highest or where the biggest technical challenges are likely to be in a project before (metaphorically at least) putting pen to paper. However, this level of knowledge is not yet there for carbon.

At the very earliest stages of a project, we need to be able to understand and visualise where the key carbon challenge is likely to be. The Pareto Principle is a good guide here: broadly speaking, 80% of the carbon outcomes are likely to come from 20% of the design decisions. We need to be able to answer the where, what and when questions: where in the design is the main carbon question? What are the factors that influence the carbon performance? And when will those decisions be realised: in the capital embodied carbon stage or the operational stage? There is renewed interest in the capital embodied carbon aspect as, operationally, buildings and infrastructure are benefiting from a lower-carbon electricity supply in the UK. Guidance on how to address this is available in, for example, the global standard PAS 2080:2016 Carbon management in infrastructure. This sets out a clear process for delivering low-carbon infrastructure projects, but this can only be achieved when everyone who influences the design and construction process makes carbon a key performance requirement.

Further research and development is necessary to underpin the development of lower-carbon infrastructure. However, we have many of the tools available today and we need to act now to drive this change and achieve the targets. Short-term, deliverable and measurable goals are often more valuable and achievable than longer-term targets. Getting carbon embedded into decision making at all levels remains key.