Atkins Engineering a Low-Carbon Society

Atkins Engineering a Low-Carbon Society

Climate change puts the engineering profession at the threshold of the biggest fundamental change to our economy and our society since the last industrial revolution. Combating climate change requires a massive transformation of infrastructure networks, in particular, the urgent reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or, more specifically, “de-carbonization.” If we don’t act now, we risk seriously jeopardizing our future quality of life.

De-carbonizing the global economy and the progressive delivery of a low-carbon society is, effectively, about understanding and managing carbon dioxide (CO2). The control of CO2 atmospheric levels requires changing our primary fuel source from fossil fuel combustion to electricity generated from zero or ultra-low carbon sources. It is estimated that buildings consume 75 percent of the world’s energy and produce 80 percent of the world’s GHG emissions. In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that transportation sources contribute approximately 27 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Agency studies also find transportation to be the largest CO2 end-use source and that transportation energy will increase 48 percent by 2025, despite improvements in vehicle engine efficiency. Production of cement, the world’s most widely used material, accounts for 5 percent of global CO2 emissions.

Professionals in the architecture, engineering and construction industries must take a central role in this period of rapid turmoil while we learn to wean ourselves from fossil-fuel-driven growth. We can create low-carbon-intensive structures, which maximize comfort and minimize energy. We can also use natural ecosystems to provide protection and to avoid over-engineering defensive structures, select materials with low lifecycle carbon production in manufacturing or transport, advocate for design and construction of renewable (low– to no-carbon) energy sources and so much more.

Engineers have been devising theories and planning for the shift to a low-carbon society for several years now, but the time is up. We must assume an immediate leadership role in efforts to decrease greenhouse gas generation if we are to make a significant contribution to overcoming threats posed by climate change. Our profession must put theory into practice and shift the focus from intellectualization and hypothesizing to action and results. Delivery of a low-carbon society requires revolutionizing the way we plan, design and build new infrastructure. As engineers, we can map the infrastructure changes that will be required. As well, carbon dioxide and the basket of six greenhouse gases quantified as CO2 equivalent (CO2e) must become the primary design determinant for new build and retrofit activities alike.



In particular, the industry must embrace a fundamental new design parameter to create a step-change in design and construction methods that produce radical carbon emissions reductions for which the built environment and its infrastructure is responsible. Low-carbon engineering must be delivered in conjunction with high-quality design where we still desire and produce elegance and simplicity. The low-carbon society will not be a return to poverty and donkey carts. We will continue to promote low-carbon gross domestic product (GDP) growth and leadership in this new economy, which will be a significant source of new, green jobs. The only constraints being applied by the engineer are in the use of fossil fuels both operationally and embedded in materials, though others will be considering farming practices, land management and animal husbandry.

Carbon reduction targets cannot be delivered in a haphazard way. We need to help our clients engage with the challenges of a low-carbon economy and be clear in the provision of practical, affordable projects. Performance specifications must minimize use of all resources required by all designs (based upon carbon budgets) and significantly improve resource efficiency of construction/manufacturing operations while reducing operational carbon use. We should prepare for application of carbon budgets applied at a national, sectoral, company or even personal level.

Working with carbon budgets, we, the engineers, must:

  • Effectively de-carbonize the energy sector,
  • Halve the carbon used to operate commercial buildings,
  • Halve the carbon used to operate the transportation sector,
  • Significantly improve the carbon efficiency of the industrial sector while recognizing the need to use oil as the base material for many essential products, and
  • Significantly improve construction and manufacturing efficiencies to avoid waste generation.


New tools and approaches allow for more risk-based judgments around strategy and investment appraisal. Key to that will be consideration of lifecycle of structures, evidenced-based assessment of policies and programs in terms of energy (and hence carbon) and vulnerability under future scenarios. As our critical infrastructure systems have typical life cycles of 50+ years, getting these decisions right, now, is critical if we are to avoid locking-in carbon for future generations.

As well, we must move faster as a profession because not only will the designs we create form part of the low-carbon economy, but also because building codes and standards must be written as we go along. This will take considerable intellectual rigor on behalf of engineers and, in particular, their professional bodies. Major changes to infrastructure we make now will be with us for the next 50 years or more. Finally, we must make carbon-intensive engineering socially unacceptable. We’ve achieved a good amount of success advocating for design from a health and safety perspective (although there is still much to do). We can do the same for carbon.

There is an overriding need for engineers to show significant leadership that will build upon the profession’s reputation. To manage the carbon input to a project and to ensure the design accounts for inevitable climate change requires immediate action from the engineer. We must show ownership and leadership, and we must be bold and enhance the status of the engineer.

A sense of pride and “I did that” will be central to deliver the necessary changes. We can’t blame government, clients or recession. In truth, engineers are limited only by their ambition and ingenuity. We have to demonstrate what is feasible so governments and the financial community know where to go.

The challenges are deeply serious and the engineering community must make some fundamental changes in its professional behaviors – total, radical changes in behaviors that we have to call a revolution. Revolutions are uncomfortable and possibly prolonged. They are iterative, and we will all make mistakes. While there is a role for negotiators, lawyers and traders, the engineering community must have an equally loud voice in shaping a future where carbon emissions are kept at sustainable levels going forward.