Climate change is the battle that civil engineers should focus on, says President Skinner

By Asitha Jayawardena

Rachel Skinner delivered online the 156th Presidential Address of the Institution of Civil Engineers UK on 3 November 2020.
Rachel Skinner delivered online the 156th Presidential Address of the Institution of Civil Engineers UK on 3 November 2020.

Climate change is the battle that the civil engineers should focus on, through the achievement of the net-zero target in 2050, said Rachel Skinner in her 156th Presidential Address of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE UK) on 3 November 2020. On the same day, across the Atlantic was held the US elections.

For the first time in 202 years of the ICE, the speech was streamed online with the largest gathering of over 2000 viewers around the world. The reason for live streaming from One Great George Street was the ongoing pandemic of coronavirus.

As the incoming ICE President for 2020-2021, Rachel talked about her theme, Net Zero Carbon, while showing a film that she had produced for the event.

The following is based on her speech and the film.

The film, “Shaping Zero: Towards net-zero carbon for infrastructure”

Covid19 delivered us the message that we are not in control of everything around us. One such thing is climate change and this is an urgent issue to act and bring on to the genuine mainstream. Coronavirus gave us enormous confidence in our ability to change fast when we have to.

Our theme is Net Zero Carbon. Why is it relevant to civil engineers?

We are the number one driver of CO2 across the world. These emissions are the cause of climate change, every day, everywhere. From a civil engineering point of view, this is a huge problem but a serious opportunity of change, leadership and the chance to do things differently. We choose to take it. We weren’t doing enough. We still aren’t doing enough. So, we will do things right.

Climate change is the most serious issue that we as civil engineers could be tackling from here. In all cases, they need us – the civil engineers – to act and help to make that truly significant difference.

The new film “Shaping Zero: Towards net-zero carbon for infrastructure” was screened.

Halve carbon emissions in 2030 to achieve Net Zero in 2050

As engineers, we’ve been solving problems for generations. It’s what we do. We design, create and improve the infrastructure on which we all rely.

As civil engineers, we must act together, urgently, to help reduce carbon emissions and therefore address climate change. Climate change is the primary existential threat to our long-run future.

Infrastructure is now responsible for around 70% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions and hence climate change. Infrastructure includes not only the materials like iron, steel and cement but also the impacts of our energy, transport, buildings, digital, water and waste systems. 

Because we understand the whole life-cycle of this infrastructure and its associated systems, civil engineers are now ideally placed to drive down carbon emissions. In other words, as civil engineers, we are ideally placed to make a significant difference in our collective future.

Since the middle of the last century, scientists have been warning us of a serious imbalance in our natural systems, mostly caused by us. Population growth is making that worse, and our global systems are creaking at the seams. We’re living way beyond our means every day.

If we are to avoid the worst impacts and costs of climate change, we must halve our current carbon emissions by 2030 and then achieve the net-zero target of greenhouse gas emissions in 2050.

A word to climate change sceptics 

Despite 50 years of scientific evidence, some still think that climate change is still a huge fuss about nothing. Some of those people are at the heart of our engineering community. Every day on social media, I see people commenting and suggesting that climate issues are simply not relevant to what we do.

At the heart of the civil engineering community are people who do understand that they have a stake in this issue and that they have the tools to begin to halt climate change. We now need to bring the issue to the mainstream and look for ways to reduce carbon in everything we do, every time.   

The issue of carbon dioxide gases

On paper, it’s only 0.041% of our atmosphere or just 410 parts per million but the level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has been rising dramatically since the Industrial Revolution. We now release thirty-five billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere every year. That’s a near-doubling since the 1970s.

Nearly all of our global infrastructure systems have relied on carbon-hungry energy operations every day. These excess carbon emissions are de-stabilizing our atmosphere and destroying our natural systems. If we carry on, it will have fatal consequences for life as we know it. 

Going forward, based on the UN Intergovernmental Panel findings on climate change, we must limit global warming to 1.5C by 2050, compared with pre-industrial levels. 

The three key areas of the puzzle

Three key areas will help carbon achieve our net-zero carbon:

  • Firstly, everyone must understand what net-zero carbon means
  • Secondly, realising that climate mitigation (a focus on the reduction of carbon emissions) is the key for civil engineers
  • Thirdly, comprehending that climate adaptation measures, though needed, do not address the root cause of the problem    

Recently, the ICE launched the Carbon Project initiative aimed at building political influence in the carbon space and the need for technical change in the areas of planning, design and construction. 

To share the net-zero opportunities across the world, the ICE has become a founding partner of the International Coalition for Sustainable Infrastructure. With a reach across 138 countries in 6 continents, we have big plans to share net-zero opportunities and challenges through this year and beyond

Moreover, progress towards UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 13 of climate action will also support almost all other SDGs for wider social, environmental and economic benefit.

Not a race, but what about you?

It’s important to understand that this is not a race. While it’s great to hear about different cities and different businesses homing in on net-zero carbon, we need to remember that we’re all starting in different places and this is a race that no-one wins unless we all do.

Do you agree with me? Is there an urgent need for us to change? No more harm but we are helping to put right the harm of the past.

Now, what are you going to do?


“Civil engineers are ideally placed to make a significant difference to our collective future.”

Civil engineering insights into the UK’s 2050 greenhouse gas emissions net-zero target

Carbon in Infrastructure – where and how much?

Zeroing in on carbon, by Rachel Skinner


Note 1: With Rachel Skinner, the film ‘Shaping Zero: Towards net-zero carbon for infrastructure’featured a cast of people such as world-renowned explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Chair of the UK Committee on Climate Change Lord Deben, former UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd, former ICE President Sir John Armitt, the Mayor of Los Angeles Eric Garcetti, the Mayor of Stockholm Anna König Jerlmyr, Eden Project Founder Sir Tim Smit and many more. Here, Rachel with over 30 people was able to share her virtual stage directly to all 95,000 ICE members.

Note 2: Rachel Skinner is Executive Director (Transport) at WSP. She was invited to become a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2019 and is a Chartered Engineer, Trustee and Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers. She is also a Fellow of the Institute of Highways & Transportation and a Chartered Transport Planner. In 2018, she was appointed by the Scottish Government as an Infrastructure Commissioner for Scotland and is a Patron of Women in Transport, having been one of its founding board members in 2005.

Note 3: This post was prepared by the official post by Andrew Panos as well as the online speech by Rachel Skinner on 3 November 2020.



  1. Her message is very important. The more actors from a wide range of fields addressing climate change the closer we’ll get to solving the problem. Great post!


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