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Asset management and climate change: The urgency, responsibility, and ability to act

Michael Salvato lays down the challenge to asset managers and engineers. We have a professional and moral duty to act. We have the smarts to do it too.

Climate change is a ticking time bomb that will destroy everything we hold dear. Global CO2 concentrations have just passed 400 parts per million. That’s a 50% rise in the past 25 years — a period when we knew the risks. The last time CO2 levels were this high, humans did not exist.

Let’s be in no doubt about the urgency for action. Over the last five years, the average annual cost of climate change in the US has approached $100 billion per year, fanned by hurricanes such as Katrina and Harvey, and wildfires in the western states. This isn’t a problem for future generations or something unfortunate that happens in poorer countries. It’s here. It’s now.

Line of duty

The actions we take in the next 10 years will dictate the living standards for mankind across the rest of this century and beyond. As asset managers and engineers, I believe we have a moral and professional duty to lead from the front. Infrastructure is currently responsible for over 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The engineering profession creates carbon-intensive assets, such as roads, that encourage carbon-intensive social and economic behaviors, such as driving.

This isn’t the blame game — but rather the aim game. Asset managers and engineers are the ones who can help lead mankind out of this gathering storm. We have a major role to play in the stewardship of our fragile planet through the rethinking, reengineering, management, and development of infrastructure that is smarter, more sustainable, and resilient.

The good news is that asset managers and engineers are already doing some amazing stuff, all across the world, right now. The fourth industrial revolution is starting to take shape. The Internet of things (IoT), renewable energy, and a better understanding of earth systems are opening radically new possibilities for transforming our infrastructure systems.

Reasons for optimism

Asset managers are harnessing intelligent assets, cyberphysical systems, and deeper knowledge of the environment to transform infrastructure systems such as energy, transportation, and waste management. The marriage of digital technologies with the physical environment is giving birth to smart infrastructure.

We layering sensors, BIM, GIS, machine learning, and big data onto our physical systems, and doing this with much greater awareness of the operating limits of Earth systems for keeping the planet hospitable.

Infrastructure is being increasingly understood as an integrated system of systems. This really matters. By identifying the interdependencies across sectors, we can break down the "silo mentality" in infrastructure development. Networked systems that provide the basic services essential for the functioning of non-networked assets underpin 80% of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Asset managers and engineers are helping to decarbonize infrastructure, by replacing materials and energy with digital information. The world’s first low-carbon infrastructure specification, PAS 2080, establishes a common understanding, approach, and language for whole-life carbon management of water, energy, transport, communications, and waste infrastructure.

Taking a wider perspective

Business as usual has started to change. We’re increasingly looking at the benefits of the entire system, not just construction. The measurement of value is moving from output/capex to outcomes/totex (total expenditure or whole life cost). Asset owners are putting greater emphasis on benefit to customers and society, which encompasses the resilience and sustainability of interconnected socioeconomic and environmental systems.

Our profession has the smarts to solve big challenges. With its emphasis on making best use of finite resources to deliver the value stakeholders want the most, there has never been a more important time for asset managers to enter the fray.

Michael Salvato

Mott MacDonald asset management lead

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