Aiming for Net-Zero Carbon

ICE President Rachel Skinner recently spoke about the need for urgent action to tackle carbon emissions as part of Bentley's TwinTalks series

Rachel Skinner, President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, used the latest of Bentley's TwinTalks to talk about ICE's carbon reduction initiatives. Rachel is an Executive Director at WSP, but also the youngest ever president of the Institution of Civil Engineers. The role traditionally encourages presidents to take on a theme throughout their term of office, and Rachel's choice is carbon reduction, a subject she is a dedicated advocate for. Her aim is to to encourage civil engineers to start "shaping zero" in the way they plan, design, construct and operate infrastructure, as she outinlined in a video she produced for her inauguration as ICE president.

"70% of the world's carbon emissions have links to infrastructure, and we have now reached the point where we know we have been causing harm. We need to put that right," she said. "Not in incremental bits, though, but for every single part of every sector and infrastructure system, every single asset we've got out there and all the things still to come. There is a massive job to do in terms of stopping and thinking, not just about whether this a good or a bad thing to do, but actually broadening our perspective and putting more value onto our thinking across the economic, social and environmental aspects of sustainability. It is urgent. Action is really critical."

Antony Oliver, Bentley's session moderator for the TwinTalk, asked Rachel about terminology, in response to the first question from the online audience, as civil engineers talk about embodied carbon rather than net-zero carbon. Rachel explained the need for better carbon literacy. "People have different ideas about what 'net-zero carbon' means. I explain it in my 'Shaping Zero' film. Net zero carbon is a balancing point. We expel millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere every day, amounting to billions of tonnes every single year. Our planet cannot process those carbon dioxide emissions nearly fast enough to take them out of the atmosphere where they're causing harm - this is driving global warming."

Embodied carbon or capital carbon relates to the carbon emissions 'locked into' the materials we use in our construction processes, through their creation, transport and so on. The processes that create all of those materials - concrete, steel, glass to name a few - generate carbon emissions during their production, transport and installation. Concrete has an extra issue as its production process actually generates carbon dioxide as a waste product! A much greater amount, though, is involved in the everyday use of different assets once they're actually in place for their whole life - this is operational carbon.

Rachel explained further. "This includes the energy required for that system to work, and sometimes it's also the overlays in the way people use infrastructure, such as transport - petrol and diesel vehicles for example. There are lots of different elements involved and they all need action."

Antony asked Rachel about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and whether it would accelerate her drive, as it has boosted confidence in our ability to tackle major global problems. "A year ago people would have laughed if we had said that we would be sending all office workers home for a year. We would have assumed that we cannot operate processes remotely that we've had in place for decades. Now we have learned that we can change quickly when we have to and, actually, there are benefits to that change that we can capture and lock in.

"I think Covid has given us the opportunity to look and think differently about how we go about our daily lives - from commuting patterns to shopping, leisure and literally everything. We noticed almost straight away that there can be spin-off benefits that relate to carbon emissions - communities were quieter and air quality better. We now have the chance to help create a green recovery by holding onto some of these changes."

Relaying another question, Antony asked, "How important is digital technology in helping us meet our net-zero carbon challenges?" Rachel pointed to the increasingly digital aspects of the way we work, and the need to embrace new technologies to help us achieve that net-zero carbon balance. She added, "We've created vast oceans of data, but we need to be clear about the questions we're trying to answer. If we aren't careful, we may just end up with interesting but non-productive ideas on how we can solve the problem.

"There are two other things to consider - climate mitigation and adaptation. They are not the same thing and can't be used interchangeably. Mitigation is, essentially, bringing down the levels of carbon emissions so that the impact on our world is less, and supporting natural systems and carbon capture technologies so they can process as much carbon dioxide as possible.

"We can't achieve that balance if we continue to behave as we do now and just hope that technologies will come along to magically solve the problem. We are so far past the carbon emissions line now that this is just not a sensible strategy. Mitigation is where you bring down the level of carbon emissions to a level where it can be processed through natural resources and technologies."

"Climate adaptation is our defence strategy. We have 30 years of worsening climate ahead of us in any case, as it will take that long for the world's ecosystems to respond to our actions. We are going to have to adapt our infrastructure assets - improving our coastal and flood defences, protecting rail and road embankments and so on - as these are real climate-related problems that are already happening in the UK right now.

"We need to build all of this thinking into our everyday work. As an infrastructure professional, every single day we need to incorporate that knowledge, thought process and expertise and think about this project, this investment, this change to a system - be it tiny or gigantic - and ask 'am I helping to address climate issues or am I actually making things worse?'"

Rachel continued. "There are many things we can do to make an impact if we have the right knowledge and an understanding of these impacts. Last July the ICE set up The Carbon Project, which has an intentional focus on filling current technical gaps across the civil engineering domain where we could see that collaborating and working together was utterly essential. Key strands relate to consistent measurement, building capabilities and systems thinking."

"This year we also set up a brand new Carbon Champions initiative to gather good practice from anyone across the industry who has actively measured any sort of carbon reduction in their professional work. These can be small or large examples - it all counts. We will be showcasing and sharing good examples and creative ideas from all sectors and investment stages, to inspire people to find ways to do similar in their own work. We need to start filling in the gaps."

Regrettably we don't have the space to cover all of Rachel's presentation, but take this introduction as an impetus to further research activity within your own environment - whether you are a civil engineer or not. And be sure to take a look at other initiatives, such as the Government's Construction Playbook, which mandates a new focus on some of the aspects Rachel discussed.

The best place to start, of course, would be to visit the ICE website and watching Shaping Zero:

The backdrop to Rachel's talk, and this write-up, was the huge container ship Ever Given blocking the Suez Canal. If anything could highlight the enormous damage we are inflicting, it was the sight of this huge behemoth of a ship blocking the busiest trade route on the planet - not just because of the disruption, but also the massive size of the container ship and its 19,000 containers. We have stretched infrastructure to its limits, and yet we are faced with a 50% rise in the human population in the third world alone over the next 30 years - and yet this aspect of it was largely invisible to most of us until the ship got stuck!