How can civil engineers adapt to climate change in 2021?

Climate change is a challenge across all sectors, and civil engineering is no exception. At the same time, we are in an exciting period for civil engineers, who play a critical role in responding to those same challenges.

The Institution of Civil Engineering (ICE) has made 2021 its year to focus on “the latest thinking, developments and big questions around climate change and its impact on the built environment”.

It adds: “We already have the questions. We just need the answers.”

The agenda for 2021 covers four main areas:

  • De-carbonising the economy
  • Providing water security even as the population increases
  • Making the economy, society and environment genuinely sustainable
  • Using technology to do more with existing assets, especially in cities

Better drainage systems for flood water are also a significant priority, as the ICE says “it’s time to think, not sink”.

Treating climate change as a business risk

Civil engineers are in a unique position to help in the battle against climate change. But until the war is won, climate change poses a business risk to civil engineers, just as it does to businesses in other industries.

The Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) recommends that businesses should consider the financial impact of climate change, including a scenario where global temperatures rise by 2C or less.

Other reporting requirements are already in place for environmental impacts, such as greenhouse gas emissions, and civil engineers should of course comply with any mandatory reporting.

What can civil engineers do in 2021?

Cutting carbon emissions is a good start, but as far back as 2017, the ICE warned that civil engineers must be prepared to do more.

Geoff Darch, editor of a themed issue of the institution’s Engineering Sustainability journal, called on civil engineers to innovate and put in place flexible systems that can continue to adapt in the future.

He again warned of the risks from excess water during severe storms, and the need for sustainable drainage systems in urban areas.

While extreme storms may be relatively rare, they are likely to become more common as the warming atmosphere contains more energy – so civil engineers should make it a priority to prepare for this without delay.

The global shutdown of 2020 put a halt to a lot of non-essential engineering work. Now it’s time to reboot the system, and there’s no better moment to adapt and adopt truly sustainable working practices, not only in civil engineering but across the economy as a whole.

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