Climate Change: A Call to Action for Engineering & Design Professionals

Dockside Green

By: Adam Efird

Climate change. It’s happening. Those of us in the engineering, design, and infrastructure industry have never before been presented with such a grand opportunity to affect economies and society like we are now. The scientific community has been telling us for some time now that the way we behave must change immediately if we are to prevent climate change from becoming catastrophic. It’s time for the infrastructure industry to fully embrace the crucial role we can play in moving society from discussion to action. It’s time for us to demonstrate leadership.

Unfortunately, climate change is not typically a priority when projects are evaluated and designed. We need to be designing projects in a fundamentally new way as soon as possible. Climate change considerations must be a part of every road, bridge, building, or community we design. We must consider how climate change impacts our design; and how our design impacts climate change. The greatest challenge is figuring out how we make this new paradigm of design mainstream.

Many in the infrastructure industry quickly assume finding high-tech solutions will provide the answer to solving climate change challenges. High-tech solutions have a role to play, but we also need to focus on some low-tech solutions; whether in the built environment or how we design communities. Simple solutions could range from the materials we select to creating pedestrian and bicycle friendly areas. These simple solutions could have tremendous impact.

A first step in designing for climate change is to become “carbon aware”, which involves understanding where carbon is embedded in the lifecycle of a project and learning how to create reductions. In an industry where competition is often fierce, collaboration and sharing tools that enable carbon reductions in our designs will be essential. The infrastructure industry has a responsibility to share knowledge, expand technical skills and learn how to influence a wider audience. This is how we demonstrate leadership for climate change.

Finding solutions for the carbon issues in the products that we design will not happen overnight. We have to be realistic about it. However, the times are changing. The day will come where our clients will find it unacceptable to provide a design that uses too much energy or resources. Climate change and the transitioning characteristics of the marketplace will shift the design question to something that starts at the beginning of a project.

The Royal Academy of Engineering published a report in 2011 that highlights some of the challenges and opportunities for infrastructure professionals in designing for climate change. The report would be a good starting point for infrastructure professionals wanting to explore what designing infrastructure projects for increased resiliency and adaptability to changing climate conditions would look like. Additionally, infrastructure firms could design embedded carbon calculators that can be customized for various infrastructure projects. Embedded carbon calculators could serve as a powerful tool for design professionals transitioning to carbon conscious design.

Whether we realize it or not, climate change presents the infrastructure industry with the most complex challenge we have ever dealt with. Changing the way we design the built environment to account for how it interacts with the natural environment is a phenomenal challenge. These changes present cultural, organizational, and technical challenges to the engineering and design community, but they are extremely important for society, our industry and the planet.

The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS), a center within Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE), provides interdisciplinary graduate education, cutting edge research, and strategic leadership needed to navigate a rapidly changing world. Our work spans five continents and engages key stakeholders from education, business, government, non-profits, and local communities. Our goal is to create real solutions to the world’s global sustainability challenges. To learn more about our programs, services, and global engagement, please visit: cligs.vt.edu