Civil engineers say climate change is neglected in infrastructure design and delivery

By Asitha Jayawardena

Two out of three civil engineers in the UK say that the design and delivery of infrastructure are carried out without addressing the biggest challenge that humanity is facing today, i.e., climate change.

Survey on civil engineers on good design

66% of civil engineers in the UK said that adequate effort is not taken to battle climate change in the design and delivery of infrastructure. That is, the production of greenhouse gas emissions is overlooked in the process. 59% of the participants said that the adaptation to climate change was not prioritised.

900 UK-based members of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) took part in the survey, conducted in collaboration with the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) Design Group. It informed the report What Makes Good Design? published on 13 July 2021. The magazine New Civil Engineer carried out a news article on that day.

To these issues of neglecting greenhouse gas emissions and the adaptation to climate change, the two shortcomings they showed are a lack of joined-up thinking (47%) and absence from the project brief (44%).

When asked what would encourage the industry to focus more on outcome-based solutions, incorporating a business model that valued outcomes (59%) was the answer preferred by many, closely followed by looking beyond the boundaries of the site and project (56%) and more collaboration with complementary expertise (51%).

Addressing society’s biggest challenges

“Civil engineers use their influence to help address society’s biggest challenges – the accelerating climate emergency, population growth, dwindling biodiversity, water scarcity and urbanisation,” said Rachel Skinner, ICE president.

“Design expertise is absolutely pivotal to creating the right solutions and long-run outcomes for people and our natural systems, today and for generations to come.”

“Good design begins at the moment that initial concepts are identified to solve specific problems in a particular context, and continues through the project lifecycle. The importance of good design is now, quite rightly, reflected in the Government’s decision to have board-level design champions on all nationally significant infrastructure projects.”

Awareness and understanding of good design

The report makes a series of recommendations for industry stakeholders and policy decision-makers in raising awareness and understanding of good design among civil engineers.

The survey showed:

  • Only 15% of civil engineers consider greenhouse gas emissions and the adaptation to climate change at all times during their work
  • The quality of life is the most considered while demographics are the least considered issue when civil engineers try to highlight the impact of their work 
  • 76% of civil engineers said that they consider “improvements to people’s quality of life” more than any issue in the survey while 4% said that they never or rarely considered it.

Carbon reduction targets

“In the context of the industry’s net-zero aspirations, it may surprise some that climate is regarded as the least addressed design principle within the survey,” said Judith Sykes, the report’s steering group lead and NIC Design Group member.

“Good design remains critical if we are to use our limited resources to find creative approaches to meeting our carbon reduction targets, deliver on the levelling-up agenda and create healthy communities.”

“With a greater understanding of how the principles are understood, this research enables us to improve our strategic decision-making processes and foster a design culture in infrastructure delivery. This requires collaborating with organisations such as ICE that are committed to elevating design practice.”

Further work from the survey and the report

The survey and the subsequent report will inform the climate literacy programme of the ICE. It will also mirror the requirements of the ICE grades of the Membership and Fellowship. The development of its Continuing Professional Development programme will convey the best practice in design in collaboration with other institutions.


Climate change is overlooked in infrastructure projects, civil engineers warn

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



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