Five ways for civil engineers to act on climate change


As we come out of the COP26 summit, we all have the opportunity to reflect on the steps we can take to act on climate change. Individual engineers play an important role in shaping and designing the world around them, which means we all have the opportunity to help create a more sustainable world. Following the example of the Institute for Civil Engineers’ guide for engineers to make practical changes, here are my five messages for engineers who want to take action on climate change.

Rajesh Ranjan is Section Head for Civil and Structural Engineering at Burns & McDonnell UK

Think differently, act urgently

We cannot continue to do what we have always done before. The challenges posed by the climate emergency provide an opportunity for civil engineers to take a more creative, collaborative and holistic approach. For substation projects, we need to encourage project stakeholders to reduce the project footprint, opting for a no-construction solution, where possible, to reduce carbon emissions.

Modular substations offer increased efficiency and flexibility compared to conventional substation solutions. Civil engineers implement pre-fabricated / pre-assembled (built off-site) foundation solutions, which can be quickly assembled and easily deployed for a reduced construction schedule. These foundations can be quickly dismantled and moved to a new substation for future reuse.

Carbon should be a part of every conversation

For EPC / retrofit projects, it is never too late to put carbon on the project agenda, regardless of the status of the design. When it is too late to influence the design, we need to re-examine the implementation, operation or use where carbon savings can be achieved down the line. Radical carbon savings can be generated by re-thinking outdated practices that can be surprisingly easy to change.

Civil engineers should work with various stakeholders to come up with alternatives to the conventional use of concrete in areas such as reinforced concrete, foundations, general concrete, and paving concrete. We can offer the use of recycled aggregate and low carbon cement replacements to reduce incorporated carbon up to 80% compared to standard concrete mixes, while increasing durability. Early engagement through supply chain partners and their various material suppliers will continue to be critical to success in this key area of ​​sustainability.

Influence your stakeholders

Civil engineers can propose alternative carbon reduction solutions in collaborative meetings with customers. For example, finding alternatives to concrete paths and foundations in substation projects – using more sustainable alternatives such as chippings and steel fencing – can have a significant environmental benefit. In addition to being more durable, these techniques have other advantages: they are cost effective and produce relatively little disturbance and noise.

Results before results

To achieve low carbon infrastructure, civil engineers must change their thinking from what infrastructure is to what infrastructure does. We should ask project stakeholders: “What is it for? This focus on results is at the heart of the Project 13 principles which advocate a corporate approach to project delivery that brings together owners, partners, advisors and suppliers, working in more integrated and collaborative agreements, underpinned by long-term relationships.

Civil engineers should query, for example, a GIS building requirement for a substation. GIS has been installed on the exterior with touch-up paint in accordance with the maintenance schedule of some OEMs. There will be substantial carbon and cost / program savings of the project, if the GIS buildings and its foundations, including the crane, are not installed on the site.

Be creative

Committing to a zero carbon future means exploring alternative scenarios that involve reuse, adaptation and encouragement of behavior change that will drastically reduce users’ need for the asset.

Civil engineers can affect results by not building anything – adapting existing infrastructure or changing the way we use it. People with diverse mindsets are more likely to be able to bring their experiences to problem solving and creative solutions.

Civil engineers should always propose to use permanent civil, structural and construction engineering assets at all substation sites with proper justification for their use, including performing design risk assessments. A project team should be challenged to change the routing of all services such as cables, services to meet the capacity of the existing infrastructure where they are routed and supported. Design should always look for opportunities to conserve and restore buildings instead of tearing them down and replacing them.

The design should involve minimal use of materials while maintaining safety, constructability, and 100% usability. The design should also consider the process of future reinforcement as a viable means of sustainability rather than an over-design.

Civil engineers should use BIM for various project stakeholders to make more informed decisions to choose more sustainable materials as part of a project lifecycle use.

Believe you can make a difference

A combination of different thinking, influencing stakeholders and creative solutions can make the difference when it comes to making real and lasting change. As the world comes together in Glasgow to find global solutions to tackle climate change, your team can make a difference on the pitch too. Never underestimate the role that every engineer can play.

* Rajesh Ranjan is Section Manager for Civil and Structural Engineering at Burns & McDonnell UK

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