Editor’s Comment | Be comfortable being uncomfortable

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Claire Smith

Climate resilience and reducing carbon emissions must be at the heart of everything we do as civil engineers and it is something that is not going away. In 2021, with COP26 in November, the spotlight was on the problem, the challenges and the gaps that exist in terms of solutions. Now we need to make sure that the momentum in preparing for the event is not just maintained, but built over and over again.

In the 12 months since our last focus on the Net Zero Carbon Challenge, we have worked hard to integrate the issue of climate resilience into each of our feature articles in the Future of and Innovative Thinking sections of the magazine. We were not always able to meet our target, as not all projects were able to provide the embodied carbon cost data we requested. We need to do better as an industry to understand where we stand with carbon emissions if we are to find solutions that truly deliver the reductions needed. We not only have to be better at doing it on the spot, we have to be better at sharing what we’re doing and sharing what works and what doesn’t.

The formulations of concrete and steel we need to use need to change and we also need to find design solutions that use less of it. These changes are essential if civil engineers are to play their part in delivering the government’s 2050 net zero carbon promise.

In this issue dedicated to the net zero carbon effort, we looked at what is happening on site with construction materials and equipment – two areas that have been identified as having the potential to provide the greatest reductions in the most promptly.

Concrete and steel have been the building materials of choice for civil engineers for centuries – and they likely will continue to be. However, the formulations of concrete and steel we need to use need to change and we also need to find design solutions that use less of it. These changes are essential if civil engineers are to play their part in delivering the government’s net zero carbon promise in 2050 while continuing to build climate-resilient infrastructure.

But are we too comfortable with concrete and steel? Are industrial customers willing to accept risk when it comes to using new materials? This need to feel uncomfortable about the building materials we choose and the design choices we make was brought up by Civic Engineers director Gareth Atkinson when I spoke to him about the growing interest in renovation rather than replacement.

In this issue, I also spoke to the Environment Agency’s chief innovation officer, Andy Powell, about the organization’s work to use more low-carbon concrete. We discussed how the agency sought to go about this without adding unnecessary risk or compromising technical standards. He highlighted the fact that concrete will continue to be the material of choice for many long-term projects but that we need to use less of it.

To put the scale of the challenge into context, OtB Concrete Director Charles Allen, author of this month’s Opinion article, points out that if the cement industry were a country, it would be the third global carbon emitter behind China and the United States. He says it’s a sobering thought – and he’s not wrong.

The carbon cost and environmental impact add to the challenge of obtaining planning consent for large projects. Last month was a difficult anniversary for the Ministry of Transport and National Roads – a full year had passed since a development consent order decision was made in time. Bringing road projects into line with net-zero carbon goals will take much more than a focus on construction materials and site equipment – ​​and it’s a problem we all need to work to solve.

  • Claire Smith is NCEthe editor

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