In 2019, the UK became the first major economy to pass the net-zero emissions law. This has set a target that will require the UK to reduce greenhouse gases to net-zero by 2050. This will affect all corners of UK industry as the carbon emissions will not shrink away on their own accord, it will take dedicated action from individuals and businesses to achieve this target.

What is net-zero?

Net-zero is a term that describes a level of greenhouse gases (as produced by human actions) that are at a low enough level to be effectively removed. The gases can then be eradicated and balanced through the natural process of photosynthesis. During the UN’s 2019 Climate Action Summit, 77 countries and over 100 cities committed to reducing their carbon emissions by 2050 – including the UK.

How does civil engineering contribute to carbon emissions?

In the Treasury’s 2013 report on Infrastructure Carbon, the infrastructure industry was found to be responsible for 53% of carbon emissions, and this has only risen since then. This places a large responsibility on the infrastructure and construction industries in helping the UK meet its net-zero targets. The civil engineering industry plays a significant role in the cause and the solution to this problem, and without action from this industry, the net-zero targets will not be met.

Looking ahead to the future, the civil engineering industry must strategize and innovate accordingly in order to reduce their emissions. The younger and newer generations of civil engineers have been exceptionally passionate about making a change in the industry and increasing sustainability, however, net-zero targets can still sound overwhelming and hard to process on an individual level. Therefore, the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) held a roundtable to discuss ways that the industry can help meet net-zero targets, finding a range of ways to encourage sustainability.

How to encourage sustainability in the industry

The infrastructure industry is known for their health and safety culture, and although it is early days for sustainability in the industry, many hope that the industry will soon hold sustainability culture as just as valuable an asset. In order to encourage and cultivate a more sustainable culture within the industry, it is the responsibility of leaders and managers to encourage and accelerate the growth in this area.

Companies should set an example by setting out a company vision that clearly cooperates with the net-zero targets, promoting and rewarding sustainable practices until they become part of business as usual. It is also important to educate employees and management about the significance of net-zero and the large role civil engineering plays in helping the UK meet their targets.

How to set effective net-zero targets

Laying out clear and direct targets will help net-zero targets feel reachable, and allow for individuals to see the value in their actions. Just as the general public have been urged to lessen car and air travel and eat less meat, with reports showing the impact of individual lifestyle changes, individual actions within the civil engineering industry are just as important.

To form a set of effective targets, each target should be clear, meaningful and resonate with individuals who want to make an impact. Targets should be ambitious and yet come across as realistic and achievable. The clear communication of carbon-reduction targets helps make employees aware of the clear steps they can take to make an impact. One step that should be promoted amongst companies is to reuse, prioritising refurbishment and retrofitting existing buildings rather than consistently building new ones.

Many infrastructure companies have already committed to achieving net-zero targets by 2030, beginning the necessary fundamental changes to make a positive impact. This only reflects positively on a company’s values, communication, leadership and employees. As more and more industries evolve their practices to forge a more hopeful future for the generations that follow, let’s make civil engineering one of them.


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