Arup Thoughts: We have a duty of care to the planet

As an engineer, I think I have a duty to address the challenge of climate change in my work. If I don’t, then how can I hope to shape a better world?

By Kristian Steele, Arup February 5, 2016

As an engineer, I think I have a duty to address the challenge of climate change in my work. If I don’t, then how can I hope to shape a better world?

The carbon footprint of engineers and designers’ own activities isn’t large – many of us still travel too much on business, and not all of our offices are as efficient as they should be. But the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for the buildings and infrastructure that we design and advise on are substantial.

As a typical engineer, you don’t have much control or influence over the firm you work for, or your clients. Day-to-day you try to offer your clients more climate aware ways to build, or to operate their assets. But you also fundamentally rely on your clients to take this issue seriously.

To make a difference, you need to work with those who act responsibly, those who work to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Then you can try to encourage and assist them in these aims.

There are exemplar projects, such as Crossrail, where a bespoke carbon calculator assessed the lifetime carbon emissions of the entire project. But many projects simply don’t do enough to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Others — say a design for a new airport or oil platform — will significantly increase GHG emissions. What should we do about these?

I know Arup’s clients are often grappling with the same challenges. Take, for example, the aid programmes that the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) delivers to people with Malaria, Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS in places with very little health infrastructure. These programmes create millions of tonnes of GHG emissions.

If they could, UNDP would spend even more money and help more sick people. But this would generate even more emissions. So how do you both continue to provide this life-saving aid and reduce GHG emissions? At the moment, I don’t think a zero-emission aid programme is feasible (without resorting to carbon offsetting) but somehow the industry will have to find a way to achieve that.

At Arup, we’re helping the UNDP to measure its emissions and investigate ways that these could be reduced. For example, it might be feasible to use renewable energy rather than diesel generators in off-grid locations.

We’ve also been studying how changes to the UNDP’s logistics and supply chain could reduce the overall GHG footprint. This will help to reduce the programme’s emissions, but it won’t eliminate them entirely. It’s something that still needs more work; it is a transition they are still working on.

Kristian Steele works in the Advanced Technology and Research group at Arup. His professional training was as a civil engineer, but through a doctorate, a career at BRE, and subsequently Arup, he moved to specialise in systems analysis using tools like Lifecycle Analysis and Multirregional Input Output Analysis. This article originally appeared on Arup Thoughts. Arup is a CFE Media content partner.

Edited by Ksenia Avrakhova, production coordinator, CFE Media,