Engineers see opportunities in promoting low-carbon development to fill void left by climate-change summit

12/23/2009 By Peter Reina, with Neelam Mathews and Manuela Zoninsein

Environmentalists were disappointed by the two-week United Nations-sponsored Copenhagen climate- change summit, which failed to set binding emissions targets. But the Danish conference, attended by 119 government heads, has helped stimulate engineers to promote themselves as low-carbon champions.

Indonesian floods are thought to be tied to climate change. Global summit in Copenhagen produced only an outline of how countries may address the issue, but engineering firms see clients who believe

Indonesian floods are thought to be tied to climate change. Global summit in Copenhagen produced only an outline of how countries may address the issue, but engineering firms see clients who believe “decarbonizing” is going to happen. Indonesian floods are thought to be tied to climate change. Global summit in Copenhagen produced only an outline of how countries may address the issue, but engineering firms see clients who believe

Regardless of the summit’s outcome, “we will continue to work on the [climate] cause we believe to be very important,” says Bertrand van Ee, president of the large Netherlands-based design firm DHV Group. “Our type of company needs to take a leadership position. We see the impact of climate change on the projects we do. We are confronted…at a very real level.”

In its Copenhagen Accord, emerging overnight on Dec. 18-19, the governments acknowledge the global temperature rise should be kept below 20°C to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Additionally, by the end of next month, developed countries will commit to quantified emissions targets starting in 2020. Major emerging economies and some smaller developing states will list voluntary pledges for action.

To help poorer nations, governments agree that $30 billion will be made available over the next three years, rising to $100 billion a year from 2020.

Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, says the accord is “a letter of intent…the ingredients of an architecture that can respond to the long-term challenge of climate change.” But it lacks targets, legal status and precision on funding sources, he concedes.

Nevertheless, the increasing focus on greenhouse gases “fundamentally changes our design process,” says Keith Clarke, chief executive officer of Europe’s largest design firm, W.S. Atkins plc., Epsom, U.K. “It [now] includes an analysis of whole-life costs and benefits in a way that we have never done before,” he adds.

“Within five years, I need every single [employee] looking at the carbon budget for their project; they are all going to have some kind of carbon tool, just like they have a loading model,” says Clarke. Already, “most of our clients…are recognizing climate change is real, and the decarbonizing of the western industrial world is going to happen,” he adds.

Peter Head, London-based Arup Group’s chairman of global planning, is on a mission to promote engineering leadership in climate-change mitigation, taking him to over 20 countries. “The response I’ve had from engineers around the world has been very strong. Young people are very motivated by this message. That’s the future they want for their own careers in engineering,” says Head.

“Engineers in particular can actually lead the transition [because] engineers understand the integrated approach to delivering the changes we need,” he says. Work to reduce emissions will provide “big opportunities” for firms struggling with effects of the recession, he adds.

Copenhagen-based Ramboll Group A/S made the most of the summit, organizing events for clients, officials and media. “We see a lot of business opportunities because there is a lot of emphasis on CO2,” says Nadeem Niwaz, the firm’s project manager for climate change. We are trying to implement climate sustainability in all our services and our business units. We find many of our clients require a lot of input from different service areas…climate is so complex you have to be able as a company to take a holistic view.”

In India, C.N. Raghavendran, a partner of Chennai-based CR Narayana Rao Architects, says engineers are not climate experts, but they do realize how buildings can contribute toward recycling and energy efficiency.  He says the green-building movement is taking off in India, boosted by the federal government.

Raghavendran says green building is being bolstered by the federal government.

Raghavendran says green building is being bolstered by the federal government.

The power ministry, for instance, has a bureau of energy efficiency that gives firms a star rating. “It is coherent, too,” he says. “The building needs to have existed for one year, at least, to prove its performance and standards.”

India’s green-buildings footprint has grown from 100,000 sq ft in 2001 to over 300 million sq ft today, says Vidur Bhardwaj, director of New Delhi-based Three C Universal Developers Pvt. Ltd. He also is chairman of the Delhi chapter of the Indian Green Building Council and adviser to the Hong Kong Development Group on “Sustainable Architecture in Urban Cities.” Bhardwaj says green is comparatively new to India but has taken off. “Clients are not driven necessarily by some tearing sense of humanity or charity…but it simply makes good business sense to them,” he says. He claims it is easy to influence clients in making choices with carbon implications by showing them “in black-and-white how they will recover costs in three to four years.”

Clients are beginning to adopt green principles, agrees Raghavendran. “Software firms have become very power- intensive because of their sheer scale and power-hungry servers. That is why they are at the forefront of the green movement today,” says Raghavendran, whose firm is working on more than 10 green projects, including IT campuses.

China, along with the U.S., tops the list of countries emitting greenhouse gases. The government acknowledges the problem, and building professionals say they are beginning to see changes in the way many developers view the issue.

“In my experience, government clients are more receptive and are keen to incorporate sustainability within projects if the price does not become too high,” says Alessandro Bisagni, who runs BEE Inc., a small sustainability consulting and procurement company based in Shanghai. “There is a lot of public buzz around this as well, and while some local officials don’t really understand very well what climate change is, they know it is something the federal officials are talking about, so they are interested in learning about it.”

First published on 12/23/09 in the Engineering News-Record.

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