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Is humankind doomed to fail in the Anthropocene?

Michael Salvato discusses the root causes – and possible solutions – for our current falling out with Mother Nature. Can smart infrastructure save our reputation in the eyes of future generations?

Geologists are referring to the current epoch as the Anthropocene, in which humankind has become a dominant influence on the climate and the environment. We have become a force of nature, but not for the good.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that global temperatures have already risen by 1°C (1.8°F) because of human activity. Models project temperatures to trend above 4°C (7.2°F) if the underlying causes of climate change – predominantly manmade carbon emissions – are not addressed. If that happens, the impacts on the planetary systems that sustain life will be severe, with catastrophic results for the human population. In a 4°C world it will likely be less than half of what it is now. That's a sobering thought.

Change is in our hands

Infrastructure providers and engineers have a particular responsibility to act to limit climate change. Politicians can set targets – although they can’t be relied on to do so. However, those able to achieve a meaningful difference, with or without political assistance, are engineers. Engineered solutions aligned with pathways for carbon reduction are essential to achieving a liveable planet in the near future. As engineers, we need to address the causes of climate change. We must also address the effects of change already being felt, by making our physical infrastructure adaptable and resilient to sustain society.

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 management to enter the fray. Our national infrastructure systems — the underlying operating system of our countries — must be configured, evolved and managed with the kind of imaginative projects, institutions, funding mechanisms and technologies that will drive sustainable growth, open opportunities for everyone and protect the Earth’s natural systems.

At the moment, infrastructure is part of the problem, not the solution. The sector is responsible for over 50% of greenhouse gas emissions. Some 30% is directly related to the construction, operation and maintenance of assets, while 70% is attributed to the use of infrastructure. This feels like a good place to start. Smarter infrastructure can put a major dent in climate change by substituting energy and materials with information technology.

Hope on the horizon?

We are now entering the fourth industrial revolution, characterized by the convergence of digital, physical and biological worlds. Is there still time for the story to end well? The American theorist Jeremy Rifkin is just one person who believes that digital technology, energy efficiency and abundant clean energy is in our grasp, which would lead to meaningful quality-of-life improvements for people across the planet, with a lower carbon foot print.

An industrial revolution based on the Internet, renewable energy and the exponential growth in digital sensors opens up radically new possibilities for transforming the infrastructure systems that underpin our social wellbeing, economic prosperity and environmental sustainability.

Digital innovation is triggering a massive transformation of the global economy, at a time when we have much greater awareness of the operating limits of Earth’s systems. We are much better informed on what’s necessary for keeping the planet hospitable to life as we know it.

Will history remember our generation as the one that found the answers? Or will engineering students in the 22nd century discuss the ‘tipping point’, when the focus shifted from mitigation and adaptation to limiting the damage of a failing civilization? I know which legacy I’d prefer.

Michael Salvato

Mott MacDonald asset management lead

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