Institute of Civil Engineers: uniting engineering for sustainable development
Following October’s Global Engineering Congress 2018, Professor Lord Robert Mair, President of ICE, discusses what engineering can do to support energy efficiency, combat climate change and align with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Can you tell us about your engineering experience and why climate change is so important to you?
Throughout my career, both in industry and in academia, I have looked at the challenges facing society and tried to help find solutions, ultimately to meet people’s needs. Civil engineering provides many of the things people need every day, such as clean water and energy supplies. The things that we build provide the foundations for development throughout the world. I assumed the role of President at ICE to support the continued transformation of infrastructure and of people’s lives.
Having spent many years leading academic research, it was impossible to ignore the weight of scientific evidence that climate change is taking place. It will have an unprecedented impact on people, including some of the most vulnerable communities in the world.
Civil engineering can deliver practical solutions to tackling climate change, such as ensuring resilient and clean energy generation and building sustainable cities.
How does ICE’s work support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals?
As the professional membership body for the civil engineering profession – with over 92,000 members around the world – our role is quite simply to support civil engineers and engineering technicians to be the best they can be.
Sustainable development is the fundamental challenge facing our generation, and the engineering profession has a clear role to play. Engineering and infrastructure underpin society, and the decisions we make as a profession will help to determine society’s future.
ICE is focusing on the five UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) where engineers can make the most immediate impact: clean water and sanitation; affordable and clean energy; industry, innovation and infrastructure; sustainable cities and communities; and climate action.
I see our role as threefold: we must inspire, that is, engage the profession on how engineering contributes to sustainable development; we must support engineers with the skills and evidence to help create change; and we must act to translate the SDGs into an engineering-specific plan on how we as a profession can reach these goals.
Are there any other SDGs ICE can support, perhaps less directly, such as health and wellbeing or gender equality?
The SDGs are interlinked and interdependent. By helping engineers to deliver progress on the SDGs most obviously relevant to our profession, we will also lay the foundation for progress across all the goals. Infrastructure provision enables the achievement of social and economic goals, leading to better quality of life and reduced inequality.
Regarding education and gender equality specifically, engineers have to tackle these issues within the context of our profession. It’s no secret that engineering could be more diverse, and this starts at a very young age in early education. I’m therefore especially proud of ICE’s work with the UK Government’s Year of Engineering campaign, the WISE Campaign and the Women’s Engineering Society to help inspire the next generation, especially young women and other under-represented groups, to join the profession and make a difference.
Is it important to form partnerships in order to reach ICE’s ambitious goals?
ICE will be working with like-minded partners from across the world to create an engineering sustainability development route-map. The input from Global Engineering Congress delegates will help to set out a pathway to deliver real change against the UN’s SDGs. Over the next two years, we will build a practical plan that will enable the global engineering profession to act collectively.
With the aims of spurring practical action on climate change, water, energy, infrastructure and city design, why was it important to have such a variety of attendees at the 2018 Global Engineering Congress?
Sustainable development is ultimately a global challenge, and the challenges that we are working on, such as climate change, do not stop at national borders. We see it as essential to bring the global engineering community together – to share experience, as well as ensuring we as a profession are united in the same direction.
The congress this year featured a special cities stream, in partnership with 100 Resilient Cities, as cities are at the heart of many of the challenges facing society. For example, cities account for between 60 and 80% of the energy consumed on earth but occupy just 3% of the land. By 2030, 60% of the world’s population will be in urban areas but already 800mn live in slum conditions.
How important was technology at this year’s congress?
Technology and innovation in engineering are essential for tackling the UN’s SDGs, increasing the capabilities of industries and prompting the development of new skills. These will lead to better practical solutions for the issues we face today.
The Global Engineering Congress offered multiple sessions dedicated to exploring the role of technology, including smart transportation, robotics and artificial intelligence and digital connectivity.
Do you think the engineering community is taking climate change as seriously as it should?
Absolutely, but I believe there are two challenges. The first is dealing with the sense of scale – working on major infrastructure projects such as Thames Tideaway, then its relatively straightforward to understand the impact such a project will have on sanitation in London. The trickier area is smaller scale projects, the real ‘bread and butter’ of civil engineering. Take the decision to use a green roof on a building project. Such a decision will make a difference to the environmental impact of that building, but it’s when that decision is made in combination with thousands of others that we see the real potential.
The second challenge is measurement, as the quality of contribution matters as much as quantity. We know from our own research that 90% of engineers want to be able to clearly measure the impact of projects on sustainable development, but only a third of firms in the sector feel that they are able to do so right now. Discussing how we measure progress and what that data means for future engineering projects was a highlight of GEC.
This feature first appeared in the November issue of Energy Digital magazine.
Carbon dioxide removal revenues worth £2bn a year by 2030
Carbon dioxide removal revenues could reach £2bn a year by 2030 in the UK with costs per megatonne totalling up to £400 million, according to the National Infrastructure Commission.
Engineered greenhouse gas removals will become "a major new infrastructure sector" in the coming decades - although costs are uncertain given removal technologies are in their infancy - and revenues could match that of the UK’s water sector by 2050. The Commission’s analysis suggests engineered removals technologies need to have capacity to remove five to ten megatonnes of carbon dioxide no later than 2030, and between 40 and 100 megatonnes by 2050.
The Commission states technologies fit into two categories: extracting carbon dioxide directly out of the air; and bioenergy with carbon capture technology – processing biomass to recapture carbon dioxide absorbed as the fuel grew. In both cases, the captured CO2 is then stored permanently out of the atmosphere, typically under the seabed.
The report sets out how the engineered removal and storage of carbon dioxide offers the most realistic way to mitigate the final slice of emissions expected to remain by the 2040s from sources that don’t currently have a decarbonisation solution, like aviation and agriculture.
It stresses that the potential of these technologies is “not an excuse to delay necessary action elsewhere” and cannot replace efforts to reduce emissions from sectors like road transport or power, where removals would be a more expensive alternative.
The critical role these technologies will play in meeting climate targets means government must rapidly kick start the sector so that it becomes viable by the 2030s, according to the report, which was commissioned by government in November 2020.
Early movement by the UK to develop the expertise and capacity in greenhouse gas removal technologies could create a comparative advantage, with the prospect of other countries needing to procure the knowledge and skills the UK develops.
The Commission recommends that government should support the development of this new sector in the short term with policies that drive delivery of these technologies and create demand through obligations on polluting industries, which will over time enable a competitive market to develop. Robust independent regulation must also be put in place from the start to help build public and investor confidence.
While the burden of these costs could be shared by different parts of industries required to pay for removals or in part shared with government, the report acknowledges that, over the longer term, the aim should be to have polluting sectors pay for removals they need to reach carbon targets.
Polluting industries are likely to pass a proportion of the costs onto consumers. While those with bigger household expenditures will pay more than those on lower incomes, the report underlines that government will need to identify ways of protecting vulnerable consumers and to decide where in relevant industry supply chains the costs should fall.
Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, said taking steps to clean our air is something we’re going to have to get used to, just as we already manage our wastewater and household refuse.
"While engineered removals will not be everyone’s favourite device in the toolkit, they are there for the hardest jobs. And in the overall project of mitigating our impact on the planet for the sake of generations to come, we need every tool we can find," he said.
“But to get close to having the sector operating where and when we need it to, the government needs to get ahead of the game now. The adaptive approach to market building we recommend will create the best environment for emerging technologies to develop quickly and show their worth, avoiding the need for government to pick winners. We know from the dramatic fall in the cost of renewables that this approach works and we must apply the lessons learned to this novel, but necessary, technology.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency estimate a global capacity for engineered removals of 2,000 to 16,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year by 2050 will be needed in order to meet global reduction targets.
Yesterday Summit Carbon Solutions received "a strategic investment" from John Deere to advance a major CCUS project (click here). The project will accelerate decarbonisation efforts across the agriculture industry by enabling the production of low carbon ethanol, resulting in the production of more sustainable food, feed, and fuel. Summit Carbon Solutions has partnered with 31 biorefineries across the Midwest United States to capture and permanently sequester their CO2 emissions.
Cory Reed, President, Agriculture & Turf Division of John Deere, said: "Carbon neutral ethanol would have a positive impact on the environment and bolster the long-term sustainability of the agriculture industry. The work Summit Carbon Solutions is doing will be critical in delivering on these goals."
McKinsey highlights a number of CCUS methods which can drive CO2 to net zero:
- Today’s leader: Enhanced oil recovery Among CO2 uses by industry, enhanced oil recovery leads the field. It accounts for around 90 percent of all CO2 usage today
- Cementing in CO2 for the ages New processes could lock up CO2 permanently in concrete, “storing” CO2 in buildings, sidewalks, or anywhere else concrete is used
- Carbon neutral fuel for jets Technically, CO2 could be used to create virtually any type of fuel. Through a chemical reaction, CO2 captured from industry can be combined with hydrogen to create synthetic gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel
- Capturing CO2 from ambient air - anywhere Direct air capture (DAC) could push CO2 emissions into negative territory in a big way
- The biomass-energy cycle: CO2 neutral or even negative Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage relies on nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere for use elsewhere