Thursday, 12 January 2017

Reflections from a Sustainability Study Day

This week, I was published on the ICE Civil Engineer blog explaining how engineers can use our development action plans and CPD records to grow our own careers and serve society better. I have written previously about the challenges within my discipline to adapt to the increased frequency and impact of extreme weather events, as illustrated in this article from Iain McKenzie reflecting on the challenges of maintaining earthworks for Welsh roads (“Can we make it rain less in Wales, or maybe flatten out some of those pesky mountains? If not, are we headed for a managed decline in performance?")
But when engineers talk about climate change, we have a tendency to focus on adapting to its effects rather than addressing the root cause, so a key objective for me this year is to improve my understanding of low carbon and energy saving solutions which are applicable to the rail sector.

I’m kicking off the year with a day immersed in climate change resources for engineers, helped by ICE’s new six-month knowledge campaign on the theme of Energy, Resilience and Climate Change. A further challenge is to share learning as widely as possible, so I am sharing links and thoughts over the course of the day below and on Twitter under the hashtag #SustainabilityStudyDay. Please feel free to contribute your own ideas and suggestions for further study in the comments or via Twitter.

Cancer, climate change and priorities
As my own family’s story last year has been shaped by the loss of my dad to cancer, this article from astronautand NASA climate scientist Piers J Sellers seemed like a good way to start the day. Having been diagnosed with late stage pancreatic cancer, he reflects on whether this changes his focus in life: does climate still matter to him?
As an astronaut, he says that “I saw how fragile and infinitely precious the Earth is. I’m hopeful for its future. And so, [as a climate scientist], I’m going to work tomorrow.”
My dad also decided that he should “go to work tomorrow”, continuing to work from home until about six weeks before he died. In his case, his contribution was about using statistics to support the discovery of better drugs for prostate cancer and heart disease.  
The contribution my colleagues can make is clear too: with the evidence for a changing climate now accumulating from all quarters of the world, it is time to focus on action. “The initial heavy lifting will have to be done by policy makers” (hopefully influenced by heavyweight policy advice like the ICE’s National Needs Assessment), but:
“Ultimately, it will be up to the engineers and industrialists of the world to save us. They must come up with the new technologies and the means of implementing them. The technical and organizational challenges of solving the problems of clean energy generation, storage and distribution are enormous, and they must be solved within a few decades with minimum disruption to the global economy.”

What does the Paris Agreement mean for civil engineers? (*ICE recorded lecture, Nov 2016
  • Between 1990 and 2014, the UK has reduced emissions from some sectors (eg waste management) by up to 73%, but my own sector is seriously lagging: transport has a major impact (14% of total UK emissions) and has only reduced that impact marginally in the last 25 years (a measly 3%).
  • Here’s something I really want to know: what exactly are my legal obligations as an engineer under the Climate Change Act 2008? My project teams regularly comply with regulations about health and safety or protected species, and I'm proud that Network Rail and Highways England are pioneering "Net Positive" biodiversity impacts from engineering projects. However, I have never had a briefing about climate regulations despite working on critical national infrastructure (ie I work in rail).
  • The National Needs Assessment used the newly-developed NISMOD “system of systems” modelling tool to understand how different infrastructure policies affect the overall outcome. The model and its implications are well explained by an article in this quarter’s ICE Proceedings*.
It was great to hear that the UK is leading the world with the Climate Change Act, but the modelling implies that:
  • Without demand management AND electrified heat and transport, we will not hit the CCA targets.
  • I didn’t know that hitting the targets in the Act still assumes that we will overshoot the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 degrees and then need to claw it back through carbon capture initiatives, the efficacy of which are currently unproven. This means we will experience increased flooding and climate-related damage than if we aimed straight for the target.
  • An interesting outcome for nuclear: if Hinckley and the other proposed new nuclear power stations are delayed for 10 years, that results in 400MT more CO2, with consequential damage to our infrastructure through flooding. 

This makes for interesting reading alongside the paper in ICE Proceedings* about the eye-watering costs and timescales to engineer new containment structures for Chernobyl, mentioning in passing that “the decommissioning of units 1 to 3 [which were still in use after the accident till 2001] is underway and planned for completion in 2064” while “the complete decontamination of the Chernobyl site will be solved only in the very distant future”.

I'll be posting more thoughts from my Sustainability Study Day over the next few days, so stay tuned and let me know your own suggestions.

NB: Links marked * are accessible to ICE members only. If you work in the built environment/infrastructure sector and would like access to ICE recorded lectures and other resources, check out the new Associate Member grade launched this week for people like you!

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