Figuratively and literally, engineers have taken a seat at the table to discuss climate change.

At the United Nation’s climate talks in Madrid, Spain, which ended Dec. 15, engineers were represented at the public sessions and in closed-door meetings. It’s the first time they have been actively involved in the political and technical discussions surrounding the way the world can mitigate and adapt to climate change, says Tom Lewis, president and CEO of WSP USA Solutions.

The response? An overwhelming chorus of “it’s long overdue.”

Hazards AheadLewis, who participated in and attended those sessions on behalf of the American Society of Civil Engineers, also represented ASCE in the announcement at the climate talks of a memorandum of understanding between ASCE and the Global Covenant of Mayors to help develop, finance and implement infrastructure adaptations for the covenant’s more than 10,000 local governments and cities around the globe.

Following the announcement, Michael R. Bloomberg, co-chair of the Global Covenant, said in a statement: “Climate change is a deadly threat to people living in cities­—and that’s especially true of the danger it poses to infrastructure, and what happens when it fails. The expertise the ASCE brings to the table is exactly what cities need to make smarter, faster decisions about how to better prepare and become more resilient.”

The partnership comes as climate change is making already ailing infrastructure more vulnerable, and more intense natural disasters increase the risks and the danger to communities worldwide.

But adapting to climate change and making communities more resilient only address the symptoms of the problem, not the cause. Engineers also need to address the underlying reasons for climate change—carbon emissions—by examining the way they design buildings and infrastructure, says Keith Clarke, former CEO of design firm Atkins and now chairman of Forum for the Future and vice president of the U.K.’s Institution of Civil Engineers.


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“My industry loves adaptation,” said Clarke at the Bentley Systems Year in Infrastructure conference in Singapore in October. “It’s the easy answer to the question. But if you keep adapting without mitigating, what you are doing is compounding the effects on the poor. The world becomes a more unequal place. Adaptation without the reduction of carbon emissions is immoral, and it’s stupid.”

Clarke later told ENR in an interview that solutions will be implemented to protect Manhattan from sea-level rise and storm surge. But he asks, what happens in Jersey City? “You look at who will adapt. Well, the wealthy will adapt,” he said.

Further, poorly designed or implemented adaptation projects can actually make climate change worse by increasing carbon emissions, according to Clarke and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 report.

The answer isn’t an either/or scenario. The engineering community, and the construction industry as a whole, must help the world adapt to rising sea levels, more intense rainfall and storms, drought, heat and other weather extremes; and it also must find ways to reduce the greenhouse gases produced during the construction, maintenance and operation of the built environment, according to Lewis, Clarke and other engineers.

The change must also occur at a pace without historical precedent, according to the IPCC. Yet, that transformation will not only benefit society, but can help companies’ bottom lines.

It’s not a new concept that there’s a need to build more sustainably, with a smaller carbon footprint and a more equitable impact on society.

Tom Smith, executive director of ASCE, points out that sustainable development has been part of the group's code of ethics since 1996. What is different, however, is the growing urgency to address climate change.

In 2018, the IPCC warned that the rise in carbon emissions would need to be halted by 2030 to prevent the world from warming by 2° C. The earth is already poised to warm, overall, by 1.5° C. The difference between a 1.5° and 2° warming is stark, according to the panel. A 1.5° increase, among other things, allows more of the world to adapt to the changing climate by providing more time to restore natural coastal ecosystems and reinforce infrastructure, it reports.

It’s not a different version of worse, “it’s a different magnitude of worse,” Clarke says of the October 2018 report. When he began giving talks about climate change years ago, he talked about how climate change will impact his peers’ grandchildren. Now, he says, it will impact anyone under 60. Clarke is 67. “It’s going to affect your life, big time.”

At an event earlier this year, Clarke said a speaker from the Bahamas—where 69 people died as the result of this year’s Hurricane Dorian—asked why people are talking about the future impacts of climate change when “ ‘my people are dieing now because of climate change,’ ” Clarke recounted.

According to the reinsurance company Munich Re, 2017 was the second-costliest year worldwide in terms of insured catastrophe losses, and 2018 was the fourth-costliest. Natural catastrophes are ranked as the top concern for engineering and construction firms, according to the 2019 Allianz Risk Barometer, which asked 2,400 global risk experts about their top worries. 

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Massive Effort

The effort needed to keep the world from warming less than 2° will be massive. Carbon emissions will need to be reduced 45% relative to the 2010 benchmark by 2030, and they will need to decline to net zero by 2050, according to the IPCC. To reach such drastic reductions in emissions requires “all hands on deck,” says Smith.

If the industry fails to step up, the rest of the world won’t be able to achieve its carbon reduction goals either, Clarke says.

According to the World Green Building Council, building and construction emissions account for 39% of all carbon emissions in the world. Energy generally accounts for 28% of those emissions, while the remaining 11% comes from carbon emissions related to materials and construction processes, according to the council.

“If you keep adapting without mitigating, what you are doing is compounding the effects on the poor. Adaptation without reduction of carbon emissions is immoral, and it’s stupid.”

– Keith Clarke, former Atkins CEO and chairman, Forum for the Future

Even more critically, because of rapid urbanization, 60% of the area expected to become urban by 2050 remains to be built, according to the International Finance Corp., part of the World Bank. Ensuring that those buildings are constructed with a lower carbon footprint will help reduce worldwide emissions and make those structures more resilient, according to IFC.

While planners and policy makers often stress the need for net zero construction, engineers have too often been left out of the picture, says Cris Liban, executive officer of environment and sustainability for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Authority.

“We had a lot of plans and conversations about what can be done, but I haven’t really seen a lot of these actual principals put into place in actual infrastructure,” says Liban.

Engineers, he says, can provide the link needed to move from idea to implementation. “It’s up to us, the engineers, who actually should be working this into the design process of construction,” Liban notes. “We see the perspective. We interface with the contractors, we interface with the users, we interface with the owners.”

Jeff Urbanchuk, director of strategic communications for the American Council of Engineering Companies, agrees. “Our members are uniquely positioned to educate policymakers with their own practical experience on what is necessary to design real-world infrastructure that delivers more efficient performance with fewer emissions and greater resiliency. Everyone has a part to play in this effort, but there are few more important roles than that of the engineer.”

Trusted Voice

Engineers’ objective and generally non-political leanings have largely kept them out of climate change discussions, Lewis says. But they may not be able to sidestep the issue any longer. At a Dec. 10 panel for the Global Congress for Climate Change & Sustainability Professionals, panelists from other industries put Liban on the spot.

“They said you guys need to push the agenda, you need to push the owners. You are a trusted voice, and you need to be more vocal on this issue,” he recalls. “It was a very surreal moment for me.”

The frustration of seeing some resilience projects move forward without engineering input led Liban and Lewis to work through ASCE to pull together a leadership summit on resilient infrastructure with engineers, as well as representatives of finance, education, government, construction, manufacturing sectors and developers to talk about what is stopping sustainability and resilience from becoming mainstream.

As a result of that summit, held in Los Angeles on Nov. 6, and a conference the following day, the Coalition for Sustainable Infrastructure was created and more than 200 people signed a letter agreeing to unite and bring relevant expertise to the table to build sustainable and resilient infrastructure. 

“Leaving the room, there was a unanimous desire to do something to make sure we carry this forward with real action,” says Smith. “There’s a real commitment to figure out how we can make a difference.”

“It’s up to us, the engineers, who actually should be working this into the design process of construction. We see the perspective.”

– Cris Liban, executive officer of environment and sustainability for LA Metro

Through the MOU signed at the UN Climate Change Conference, the coalition will work with the Global Covenant of Mayors to help member cities examine and find funding for resilience projects.

Lewis said the member cities are excited to have the engineers on board, with one caveat. Debra Roberts, a co-chair of an IPCC panel and head of sustainable and resilient cities in Durban, South Africa, told the group she was happy to have them come to the table, but don’t come with ideas of green roofs and rain gardens. “We have bigger problems. We don’t even have paved roads,” Lewis recalled.

The coalition expects to have its first full meeting in January and activities this year will focus on connecting city leaders with engineers, as well as looking for ways to address infrastructure funding gaps to improve sustainability and resilience.

“All corners of the design and engineering sector have embraced the challenge,” says Elizabeth Heider, chief sustainability officer at Skanska USA, which was represented at the summit. “It will take our customers, public and private, to embrace the challenge for us to achieve our full potential.”

While all engineering and construction answers to climate change may still be years away, there are some things that can be done now to help reduce emissions, including implementing engineering standards, evaluating life-cycle costs and taking a whole-systems approach to construction, according to Lewis, Smith and Clarke. “Standards are one of the things we are very focused on—incorporating sustainable and resilient design practices,” Smith says.

Liban is leading ASCE’s committee on sustainability to develop a sustainability standard, which might eventually be incorporated into building codes.

“Sometimes folks lament that we can’t change public policy at the speed at which we would like, but we can adopt standards,” Smith adds.

Lewis explains that at its most basic level, there is not a standard that defines resilience. Building infrastructure without considering its resilience­—or its ability to bounce back after a natural disaster—costs American families more than the $3,400 they are already paying on average to compensate for the failure to invest in the nation’s infrastructure, Smith says.

Adaptive and resilient infrastructure must consider life-cycle costs, says Smith. Lewis says that one good example is the life-cycle cost of renewable energy. Up front, the capital cost may be higher, but if long-term operations and maintenance costs are included, they are a quarter to a half of the costs of fossil-fuel power generation. “If you’re not looking at the long-term operations of a project, you are not looking at a project in the right way,” Lewis says.

Business Opportunities

According to an analysis by the International Finance Corp., there is a business opportunity of almost $25 trillion associated with green buildings in emerging markets between now and 2030. “Clients are going to love you because you are going to de-risk them,” Clarke says. Clients, he argues, will actually lead the push for lower carbon buildings and infrastructure.

“Businesses recognize that reducing their carbon footprint and being environmentally friendly can create an economic and competitive advantage,” says Steve Nalefski, vice president and general manager of the environmental services group at Burns & McDonnell.

“Sometimes folks lament that we can’t change public policy at the speed at which we would like, but we can adopt standards.”

– Tom Smith, Executive Director of ASCE

“Our industry is going to make a huge amount of money out of this, or they can go bankrupt,” Clarke says. “This is risk, not ethics.”

Clarke forecasts that through technology, entire net zero carbon building systems, such as HVAC and elevators, will be developed and handed over to general contractors to install. It’s not going to happen immediately, but it will happen very soon, he says. “It’s stuff that’s in development and out on the market,” such as electrified equipment and vehicles.

Carbon emissions, he adds, will be the primary design parameter for future infrastructure and buildings.

But Smith says that engineers and contractors are going to make money, whether it’s cleaning up after the latest disaster or preparing for the next one. “It’s really about doing the right thing and being proactive,” he says. “You are going to need engineers and contractors and planners regardless.”

Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell University professor and former engineer for oil and gas companies who now speaks out against fossil fuels, says that doing the right thing on climate change should be baked into an engineer’s DNA. He just taught a course on climate change for engineers and was energized by the excitement his students brought to the class. If climate change isn’t solved, he says, engineers will have to deal with one disaster after the next, and that’s not the kind of career they want.

“The door has been thrown wide open to step into the center of this thing,” Lewis says, “and shame on us if we don’t take advantage of it.”