Nov 3, 2018

Institute of Civil Engineers: uniting engineering for sustainable development

Olivia Minnock
5 min
ICE President Robert Mair discusses sustainable development.
Following October’s Global Engineering Congress 2018, Professor Lord Robert Mair, President of ICE, discusses what engineerin...

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.


See also: 

Wells Fargo's IN2 incubator: a global sustainability journey 

PwC: RE100 commitment just one step on sustainability journey 

Read the latest issue of Energy Digital magazine! 


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. 

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Jun 25, 2021

UK must stop blundering into high carbon choices warns CCC

Dominic Ellis
5 min
The UK must put an end to a year of climate contradictions and stop blundering on high carbon choices warns the Climate Change Committee

The UK Government must end a year of climate contradictions and stop blundering on high carbon choices, according to the Climate Change Committee as it released 200 policy recommendations in a progress to Parliament update.

While the rigour of the Climate Change Act helped bring COP26 to the UK, it is not enough for Ministers to point to the Glasgow summit and hope that this will carry the day with the public, the Committee warns. Leadership is required, detail on the steps the UK will take in the coming years, clarity on tax changes and public spending commitments, as well as active engagement with people and businesses across the country.

"It it is hard to discern any comprehensive strategy in the climate plans we have seen in the last 12 months. There are gaps and ambiguities. Climate resilience remains a second-order issue, if it is considered at all. We continue to blunder into high-carbon choices. Our Planning system and other fundamental structures have not been recast to meet our legal and international climate commitments," the update states. "Our message to Government is simple: act quickly – be bold and decisive."

The UK’s record to date is strong in parts, but it has fallen behind on adapting to the changing climate and not yet provided a coherent plan to reduce emissions in the critical decade ahead, according to the Committee.

  • Statutory framework for climate The UK has a strong climate framework under the Climate Change Act (2008), with legally-binding emissions targets, a process to integrate climate risks into policy, and a central role for independent evidence-based advice and monitoring. This model has inspired similarclimate legislation across the world.
  • Emissions targets The UK has adopted ambitious territorial emissions targets aligned to the Paris Agreement: the Sixth Carbon Budget requires an emissions reduction of 63% from 2019 to 2035, on the way to Net Zero by 2050. These are comprehensive targets covering all greenhouse gases and all sectors, including international aviation and shipping.
  • Emissions reduction The UK has a leading record in reducing its own emissions: down by 40% from 1990 to 2019, the largest reduction in the G20, while growing the economy (GDP increased by 78% from 1990 to 2019). The rate of reductions since 2012 (of around 20 MtCO2e annually) is comparable to that needed in the future.
  • Climate Risk and Adaptation The UK has undertaken three comprehensive assessments of the climate risks it faces, and the Government has published plans for adapting to those risks. There have been some actions in response, notably in tackling flooding and water scarcity, but overall progress in planning and delivering adaptation is not keeping up with increasing risk. The UK is less prepared for the changing climate now than it was when the previous risk assessment was published five years ago.
  • Climate finance The UK has been a strong contributor to international climate finance, having recently doubled its commitment to £11.6 billion in aggregate over 2021/22 to 2025/26. This spend is split between support for cutting emissions and support for adaptation, which is important given significant underfunding of adaptation globally. However, recent cuts to the UK’s overseas aid are undermining these commitments.

In a separate comment, it said the Prime Minister’s Ten-Point Plan was an important statement of ambition, but it has yet to be backed with firm policies. 

Baroness Brown, Chair of the Adaptation Committee said: “The UK is leading in diagnosis but lagging in policy and action. This cannot be put off further. We cannot deliver Net Zero without serious action on adaptation. We need action now, followed by a National Adaptation Programme that must be more ambitious; more comprehensive; and better focussed on implementation than its predecessors, to improve national resilience to climate change.”

Priority recommendations for 2021 include setting out capacity and usage requirements for Energy from Waste consistent with plans to improve recycling and waste prevention, and issue guidance to align local authority waste contracts and planning policy to these targets; develop (with DIT) the option of applying either border carbon tariffs or minimum standards to imports of selected embedded-emission-intense industrial and agricultural products and fuels; and implement a public engagement programme about national adaptation objectives, acceptable levels of risk, desired resilience standards, how to address inequalities, and responsibilities across society. 

Drax Group CEO Will Gardiner said the report is another reminder that if the UK is to meet its ambitious climate targets there is an urgent need to scale up bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).

"As the world’s leading generator and supplier of sustainable bioenergy there is no better place to deliver BECCS at scale than at Drax in the UK. We are ready to invest in and deliver this world-leading green technology, which would support clean growth in the north of England, create tens of thousands of jobs and put the UK at the forefront of combatting climate change."

Drax Group is kickstarting the planning process to build a new underground pumped hydro storage power station – more than doubling the electricity generating capacity at its iconic Cruachan facility in Scotland. The 600MW power station will be located inside Ben Cruachan – Argyll’s highest mountain – and increase the site’s total capacity to 1.04GW (click here).

Lockdown measures led to a record decrease in UK emissions in 2020 of 13% from the previous year. The largest falls were in aviation (-60%), shipping (-24%) and surface transport (-18%). While some of this change could persist (e.g. business travellers accounted for 15-25% of UK air passengers before the pandemic), much is already rebounding with HGV and van travel back to pre-pandemic levels, while car use, which at one point was down by two-thirds, only 20% below pre-pandemic levels.

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