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DECARBONATE - why we must change


Mike Cook FIStructE explains how and why structural engineering firms are addressing the climate emergency.

Video by NASA Climate Change: Global temperature anomalies from 1880 to 2018

The Structural Engineers Declare initiative calls for a paradigm shift in the profession’s approach to designing buildings, cities and infrastructure.

We are living through a climate and biodiversity emergency 

The crises of climate breakdown and biodiversity loss are the most serious issues of our time. It is now abundantly clear that continued development to support economic growth has impacted on the degradation of the planet’s eco-system.  

Our planet faces a severe emergency that threatens its ability to sustain the diversity of life on which we depend for our survival. 

As the Earth degrades and is able to feed less and less people, there will be inevitable migration and border conflicts that will threaten stability between nations.

The construction industry is a primary contributor to the problem and recognises this

Buildings and construction account for nearly 40% of energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2). This colossal footprint is due to the materials needed to build, the fuels used to heat, cool and operate buildings, and the material needed to maintain and operate them. In addition, new homes offices or factories often require destruction of natural habitats.

What has to change?

We need to accept that the buildings we design are part of a larger, constantly regenerating and self-sustaining system that has to be in balance with the natural world. 

For everyone working in the construction industry, meeting the needs of our society without breaching the earth’s ecological boundaries will demand a massive shift in our behaviour. 

This is a tall order, but the research and technology exist for us to begin the transformation now, and what has been lacking is collective will.  

Building collective will across the built environment sector

As structural engineers we must acknowledge the challenges ahead and agree to take immediate and urgent action to change practices within our own discipline and recognise our responsibility to support change across the built environment sector. 

With our clients we must all recognise that the needs of future generations must take priority and be well-aware that people are starting to rethink their lifestyles and where they will invest their time and money in the future. The economic landscape is changing.

Structural Engineers Declare

Recognising the importance of collective action, more than 150 structural engineering businesses across the UK have already signed a declaration committing them to strengthen their working practices to create structural engineering outcomes that have more positive impact on the world around us.  

In doing this they are supported energetically by the Institution of Structural Engineers and are working within an industry where professionals across all disciplines, clients, investors, planners, local and city authorities and the even the UK government have declared similar goals to reduce the UK economy to achieve zero net emissions by 2050 (or sooner).

What do we do now?

Put simply structural engineers, like all firms in the construction industry must all commit to

DECARBONATE: 

  • Develop our understanding of our role in the climate and biodiversity crisis and how to remedy the harm 
  • Educate ourselves and others acquire the skills needed to steer towards zero carbon fast
  • Celebrate when we do it well, through awards and publicity
  • Advocate for change and raise awareness across our clients and those we work with, and government if we can
  • Re-use of buildings must become a priority, assessing existing buildings and upgrading them for extended use. We should not demolish buildings unless we absolutely have to
  • Benchmark progress against the best that is happening elsewhere
  • Open-source sharing of data, especially embodied carbon, is crucial so we can all get better faster
  • Nature has to become a reference point: in material selection and our projects’ impact on the environment
  • Act fast and act now - we all need to have an action plan that changes the outcomes of our work
  • Targets have to be ambitious and time bound – we don’t have much time left
  • Evaluate what we are achieving towards our targets, regularly. We need to know we are changing fast enough

Declaring was just a start. We are now putting actions into place. Working together and with the support of the Institution and other professionals around us, we can and will make a difference. We have to!
 

About the author

Mike Cook FIStructE

Mike Cook FIStructE

Mike is a Partner of BuroHappold. He is well known in the industry for his significant contribution to designing innovative buildings and enhancing the profession's reputation. He was a Vice-President of IStructE 2015/6 and is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. 

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