We must fundamentally rethink how we approach designs to become much more ‘carbon conscious’ in everything we do. This is a relatively new lens to look through for most of our clients and design teams, in addition to thinking about quality, cost, safety, social inclusivity and so on. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach but carbon has to become one of the high value outcomes that we seek, in balance with other objectives. To do this, the first action is to find and start to quantify the carbon emissions.
The earlier in the project lifecycle this starts, the greater the opportunity to build value through carbon savings without additional cost or risk. In fact, a growing weight of evidence confirms that carbon-led thinking can reduce costs. As one simple example, designing with carbon in mind may mean that quantities of concrete or steel can be reduced, to benefit both cost and carbon. As another, better place-based planning could significantly reduce whole life carbon emissions impacts for both new communities and existing places.
There are many other dimensions to this carbon consciousness that will affect future infrastructure investment. On the basis that net zero is a balance point that does not mean absolute zero, we are exploring a carbon-led decision hierarchy, where the ideal outcome would be the elimination of carbon emissions altogether, but in practice we know that we will need to step through a process of minimizing carbon emissions before mitigating or offsetting any residual impact. This last piece is evolving fast and is widely misunderstood but will become crucial. Just as we mitigate other impacts in everyday technical design practice, there is little doubt that we will increasingly need to embrace and design-in carbon offsets in a direct and measurable way. A wide range of nature-based solutions in tandem with carbon capture technologies will become essential in demonstrating net zero credentials for our clients.
What would you say to engineers and professionals starting out in their career as they look to contribute to decarbonizing infrastructure?
The climate challenge presents an incredible opportunity for young professionals who want to build a career with purpose and make a difference. The generation coming into the workplace now has grown up with climate change as a major concern, so there is no uncertainty phase that has hindered earlier generations. There is also a pent-up frustration amongst this group that we haven’t addressed climate change with urgency until now, underpinned by a strong desire for fairness and social justice. Academic course content and professional accreditation expectations are already changing to reflect a new focus on climate action, which is positive. This will be a decade of rapid change, where carbon reduction and climate resilience shifts to the mainstream, so young and emerging professionals in all roles must use their significant influence, knowledge and informal power to bring about fast change.