Arup associate director Heleni Pantelidou, civil engineer and champion of sustainable development and decarbonisation of the built environment, calls for new market mechanisms to reduce carbon, increase resilience and sustain human health and wellbeing.
Extreme weather marked this summer. The UK experienced temperatures exceeding 40oC for the first time ever. Devastating wildfires in California and large parts of Europe, extreme flooding in Pakistan and Kentucky USA, to name a few, are stark reminders of the need for climate change action.
Increasing our global resilience to climate change is necessary but not enough on its own. To avoid irreversible environmental degradation, we need to fundamentally change the way our societies and economies function; we need to transition from our carbon and resource profligate ways to a net zero carbon compatible future.
The latest IPCC report paints the starkest picture yet of the urgency to avert an irreversible climate tipping point; we have seven years to make this change happen.
While the urgency of taking action is undeniable, the report also identifies that all sectors of the global economy have substantial potential to reduce emissions within this decade by bringing meaningful focus to energy and industry, supported by land use change for decarbonisation, resilience and carbon removal.
We, engineers across the world, are trained to solve complex problems for the benefit of society – but we have done so often at the expense of nature. We have created a built environment that is highly carbon emitting and has locked in high carbon behaviours.
In the new paradigm, the complex systems of buildings and infrastructure that we work with must evolve to be fit for a net zero carbon future. We should be contemplating the whole system: the way we build, what we build, where and how we build it must drastically change, together with the way we have locked in high carbon in our consumptive and behavioural patterns.
Our construction materials, but also the change of land use from its natural functions, the alteration of natural systems of water, nutrients, habitats and soils are all impacting on carbon emissions, and are being impacted by the changing climate, which is in turn generating even more carbon.
We must redefine the intended outcomes of our work, and upskill ourselves fast in planning, designing and retrofitting decarbonisation and environmental regeneration with every project that we do.
Importantly, we must recognise that infrastructure and buildings share key commonalities and are interdependent in use. Each bridge, tunnel or building is part of a complex interconnected built environment system, and hence our new transactions should be about capital carbon investment that results in a much bigger whole life carbon reduction across the system.
Technological innovation is undoubtedly important in making decarbonisation happen. Taking concrete as an example, technological disruption is already happening: from circular economy principles in turning tunnelling clay spoil into cement replacement for concrete, to cement technologies where carbon is injected into the mixing to improve and accelerate curing, or biocement produced from biological processes without the need for high temperatures, or the addition of graphene into the concrete mix that changes the molecular structure and improves at least some of the concrete properties.
But most of these innovations are not yet scaled up, with no market mechanisms that incentivise their adoption in preference to the high carbon incumbents.
Innovation is invariably expensive. Consequently, adoption of new low carbon technologies, such as EVs and heat pumps are the privilege of those who can afford it and hence market forces alone cannot drive regional and national changes of behaviours at the required scale. We must avoid making decarbonisation the benefit of the few.
We have to change our wasteful way of living in the global north and do more with less, increasing the efficiency and interconnectedness of buildings and infrastructure systems. We must also ensure that these transformational examples are available to developing economies, which could benefit from them and leapfrog to a decarbonised prosperity rather than perpetuate fossil fuel dependency.
Importantly, we must change the way we treat nature. Our profligacy that has resulted in high carbon emissions has also brought nature to the brink. Recognising that healthy and diverse nature provides for and protects the built environment and its inhabitants within its reach, it is surely in our interest to reverse environmental degradation to reduce carbon and increase resilience to provide for human health and wellbeing – and our prosperity.
Dr Heleni Pantelidou is an associate director at Arup and a member of the Carbon Code Advisory Group for the Carbon Reduction Code for the Built Environment, hosted by the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction as part of the Construction Leadership Council’s Construct Zero initiative.