Mott MacDonald’s global head of climate resilience Ian Allison explains how infrastructure stakeholders need to think holistically if the fight against climate change is to be won.
Think of any successful infrastructure project, whatever sector, size or location. Project success is not just about the engineering, it is also about consumer demand; analysis of the problem; political will to drive the project forward; the delivery supply chain; ownership of the assets and services; and affordability. More than ever before, infrastructure is conceived to address social demands in times of limited resources - and these demands are only truly met through a holistic and interconnected approach. Take away any one of the actors, any one of the commitments and buy-ins, and the project is vulnerable to failure.
The bond between these different players provides resilience in the face of disruptive events. Wouldn’t this resilience be all the more profound if there was genuine collaboration and a ‘project first’ mentality, rather than relying on self-interests simply overlapping?
Don’t rely on serendipity
The impacts of climate change will - unless we act with the urgency that the IPCC SR1.5 report spells out - be a major disruptor to the infrastructure sector. Delivering future climate resilience demands more of us than simply representing our respective siloes. We need to actively seek out connections and interdependencies, as well as shared exposures and vulnerabilities, and make our contribution to the whole. This is where the difference between success and failure lies.
There’s a sound economic case to do so, but also a social and environmental imperative too. We cannot allow the response to climate change to lead to an increased sense of self-preservation and nationalism, and difficult conversations need to take place around enhancing the strength of national and international cooperation as well as supply chains in the face of increasingly frequent and increasingly severe climate impacts, to prevent cascade-type failures leading to catastrophic system collapse.
With ever higher levels of collaboration and co-operation, we can face climate change with a holistic response rather than a collection of individual efforts. Engineering companies can make a real difference by forging closer connections between decision makers, financiers, big business and the public at large - the aim: improved community resilience.
Earlier this year we published Under 2°C: mission possible, a ‘back-casting’ report from 2050 which sets out a global roadmap that would see us delivering the Paris 2°C Pathway. The tone of the report is deliberately optimistic, and we set out the encouragement we have found in recent events, what we see as ‘game-changers’ in meeting these global commitments. This is our story, our pathway, and we believe the Paris Agreement is genuinely achievable - if we try, if we commit.
However, the warning in SR1.5 is stark. Momentum can work the other way. If we don’t start achieving emission reduction milestones soon, then we face the risk of runaway climate change, leaving us powerless to intervene, with the impacts affecting the lives of billions of people. This season’s damaging hurricanes and typhoons are a painful reminder of the vulnerability of our society and infrastructure to severe weather events.
Momentum is growing
The good news is that global commitment is strengthening rapidly. Since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2016, rhetoric has changed from “will it happen?” to “it is happening, so how do we get on with it?” Is there total global commitment? Not quite, but the remaining naysayers are increasingly marginalised voices, just as the advocates for global action against climate change once were.
Momentum is growing around the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) too. While action to mitigate and adapt to climate change is the 13th SDG, we must remember that climate resilience is crucial to the other 16 SDGs too. There’s no point investing in poverty alleviation or rural water supplies, for example, if the people are still vulnerable to climate change.
I hope the Global Engineering Congress boosts momentum on climate action further. I don’t expect all the answers, as we don’t yet know all the questions. But if we can garner different points of view from different countries, different professions, different roles and different remits - and then find some consensus of opinion - that would be a great result.
Ian Allison will be hosting a roundtable discussion during the Global Engineering Congress in London on Friday 26 October, focusing on the role of the international community and the engineering profession in addressing climate change. If you are interested in participating, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org