Engineers need to be at top table to influence climate change debate

15 Jun 2021

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Construction professionals from around the globe gathered at a webinar on 15 June 2021 to discuss the key role of the infrastructure industry in achieving a net zero world at the latest event in FIDIC’s ongoing committee webinar series, writes FIDIC communications advisor Andy Walker.  

The latest webinar in the series, The role of the infrastructure industry in achieving a net zero world, was attended by 534 people and highlighted the pivotal role of the construction and infrastructure sector in the fight against climate change. The webinar, organised by the FIDIC sustainable development committee, underlined the international nature of the race to net zero and the importance of a coordinated campaign to address sustainable development worldwide.

The webinar was moderated by Tracey Ryan, managing director of Aurecon New Zealand and chair of the FIDIC sustainable development committee. Panellists included Bernard Aritua, senior infrastructure and logistics specialist at the World Bank in China, Lara Young, group carbon manager at Costain in the UK, Adrienne Miller, general manager New Zealand at the Infrastructure Sustainability Council, Vijay Kulkarni, partner at Midas Techfin Consultants in India and Natalie Muir, general manager, water and environment, for Cardno and vice chair of the FIDIC Sustainable Development Committee from Australia. They were joined at the event by FIDIC president Bill Howard and chief executive Dr Nelson Ogunshakin.

Kicking off the webinar, Tracey Ryan, managing director of Aurecon New Zealand and chair of the FIDIC sustainable development committee, said that climate change remained the most urgent challenge facing the world, notwithstanding the ongoing experience of the Covid pandemic. “Decarbonisation will require the best thinking from all of our industry sectors and it’s clear that without international action to combat climate change, the campaign to address its effects will be all the more difficult,” said Ryan.

First speaker, Adrienne Miller, general manager New Zealand at the Infrastructure Sustainability Council, said that there were big changes taking place across the world on sustainability issues, the pace of change was increasing and that this was in turn increasing the risks involved for those working in the sector. “In New Zealand there seems to be an increasing public will to address the country’s net zero targets and the infrastructure industry will have an important role in mitigating climate change risks. But that means that there are real opportunities for the sector too,” Miller said.

Vijay Kulkarni, partner at Midas Techfin Consultants, offered a perspective from India on the fight against climate change. He said that the construction industry needed to take a lead and not only rely on the government’s measures. “On solar energy we need to persuade people that this is the way to go. The costs of solar and wind have reduced by one third and are more attractive options and consultants in particular can get this message across,” he said. Kulkarni also made the point that it was important to secure reductions in energy use and also carbon emissions. “We need to involve all stakeholders in this and FIDIC can help in this area too,” Kulkarni said.

Lara Young, group carbon manager at Costain in the UK, said that it was crucial to retain a constant focus on driving down emissions. There was no “silver bullet” to solving the problem of climate change but it was important to achieve clarity on where the greatest opportunities were in the lifecycle of a project to reduce emissions, Young said. “It’s important to really focus on the greatest emission sources at the outset,” she said as that was the best way to achieving success. Breaking things down into “bite-sized pieces” was the approach that Costain had taken to the climate change and this was paying dividends, said Young.

Bernard Aritua, senior infrastructure and logistics specialist at the World Bank in China, said that it was “great to be around engineers” as they offered a different perspective on global challenges. Aritua addressed the issue of where the finance would come from to ‘build back better’ post Covid and highlighted the role of the World Bank in promoting investment in sustainable infrastructure through its ‘green bonds’. The bank has had to look at how it deals with the shift towards green investment and there has been a big paradigm shift from “doing no harm” with investment towards “doing good”. “It’s not enough to receive funding from the World Bank for a project you have to show how this investment will benefit communities,” he said.

Aritua also spoke about the role of engineers in promoting the effectiveness of what they do. Engineers were rarely featured in decision-making bodies, yet they had a key role, a crucial role, in addressing the climate challenge. “Engineers need to position themselves better to influence the debate on this issue,” said Aritua.

Natalie Muir, general manager, water and environment for Cardno and vice chair of the FIDIC Sustainable Development Committee from Australia, highlighted some of the work of this crucial FIDIC committee in addressing climate change, including the development of a 'Climate Pledge' that would offer the industry valuable guidance in the sustainability arena. Muir also spoke about the committee’s work in supporting the FIDIC State of the World reports, many of which had a key focus on sustainability. “Policy is important but at the end of the day it will be the engineering and scientific community that will make net zero happen,” Muir said. She urged the industry to “reimagine infrastructure” to rethink solutions and to think holistically. “It is crucial that our sector is involved at all early stage in the process and we need that opportunity to contribute so that we can drive the world towards net zero,” said Muir.

The panellists’ contributions sparked many questions and discussion from attendees at the webinar. These covered a range of issues including whole life costs, contractual issues, the sustainability challenge for developing countries whose need for heavy infrastructure is greater, the skills gap in the industry hampering the campaign for net zero, the effects of Covid on sustainable development, making construction materials greener and why is it the case that engineers are not sitting at the top table for discussions on climate change.

The role of the engineer and the need to have their input at the top table when decisions on addressing climate change and achieving net zero were being made was repeatedly highlighted during the webinar. “Why did lawyers and economists get to run the world and how can engineers take a more prominent role in decision making? Do engineers need to get more active in politics?” summed up the tone of many attendees posting questions during the event.
Attendees also highlighted the point that the impacts of climate change were human issues and it was important not to lose sight of that. As Adrienne Miller said: “All the economic analysis in the world is going to be utterly useless if we don’t have a world to live in.” Miller’s comments were echoed by Vijay Kulkarni, who said that “no section of society could be left behind” in the fight against climate change.

Summing up the webinar, panellists highlighted that “the time for sustainable big picture thinking was now”, that “green procurement policy” was essential to achieving net zero, especially in the public sector, that “people needed to take ownership of the agenda and we don’t need to wait”, the industry needs to “adapt, innovate and inspire” and take ownership of transforming the world and that the construction sector “needed to be at that top table in building a better world”.

The next FIDIC webinar is entitled, The post-Covid consulting engineering industry – Future Leaders’ global perspectives, which takes place on Tuesday 29 June 2021 at 12 noon CET. Please register your place as soon as possible to secure your place at this free event.

Click here to book your free place at the FIDIC webinar, “The post-Covid consulting engineering industry – Future Leaders’ global perspectives”.

Watch the recording of the webinar, The role of the infrastructure industry in achieving a net zero world on the link below.

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