Sir John Armitt speech to Global Engineering Congress

Text of a speech given by Sir John Armitt at the Institution of Civil Engineers' Global Engineering Congress

Published: 24 Oct 2018

By: Ben Wilson

We meet just a matter of weeks after the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change gave one of its starkest-ever warnings of what could happen if we don’t act now to protect our planet for the future.

Its report warned that, far from keeping global temperature increases below 1.5 degrees, we’re heading for a possible rise as much as double that. It painted a grim picture of what that could mean for our natural resources.

To help turn this around, the report highlighted the need for global emissions of carbon dioxide to fall by 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030 – just 12 years from now – and the need to achieve global net zero emissions by 2050.

And the IPCC gave examples not just of what Governments can do but also how we as individuals can help make a difference – such as driving electric cars, reducing our food waste and insulating our homes.

As engineers we have a responsibility – a duty, in fact – to play our part, by helping to develop the technologies that will mitigate the impacts of climate change, and to design and deliver the infrastructure that will protect our communities from its worst effects.

And at the National Infrastructure Commission, that has been at the heart of developing a National Infrastructure Assessment, something that has never been done before for the UK and is the first of its kind on this scale in the world.

Our Assessment looks across a range of sectors – from energy, transport and digital communications, to tackling waste, managing the risks of flooding and shoring up our water supplies.

And it looks not five years from now or even 10 – but at what our infrastructure needs are likely to be up to three decades into the future.

As a first for this country, we had no blueprint to follow as we developed it – but I’m proud to say that one of the first things we decided was to design our recommendations with the need to meet the UK’s targets to reduce carbon emissions front and centre.

This, alongside staying within a clear fiscal remit, meant tough decisions and trade-offs – and our recommendations will not have been welcomed by everyone.

But that does mean that our final report includes recommendations that are affordable, practical and when delivered can make a substantial impact on our carbon footprint.

And it means that our proposals for what Government can do could also go some way towards helping members of the British public to do their bit – including some of the measures that the IPCC recommends.

For example, we need to encourage more drivers to switch from petrol and diesel to electric vehicles – and here in the UK we could well be pushing at an open door.

The latest figures from the UK Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders show an increase of a fifth in sales of electric, hybrid and plug-in hybrid models over the past year.

The last thing we want is for the state of our infrastructure to slow down that progress and threaten the interest and excitement in these new vehicles.

We need to be bold, ambitious and plan the roll-out of a truly national, visible charging network that could support customer demand reaching close to 100 per cent electric new car and van sales as early as 2030.

But in our Assessment, we’re clear that for the short-term at least, action solely by the private sector won’t be enough to achieve this.

There will be places – particularly rural and remote parts of the country – where private companies will not be able to deliver, and we have recommended that Government offer subsidies to support the provision of charging points in those areas.

And we’ve urged local councils to do their bit, by allocating a portion of their parking spaces – including on-street parking – to the delivery of future charging points.

We also need to reduce the amount of waste we send to incinerators or landfill and so our recommendations include that there be separate food waste collections in place by 2025.

That would mean more of what is currently just thrown away could be used to produce biogas, which can then be used as an alternative fuel for vehicles.

And it would be on top of other measures we have proposed to cut waste more widely.

They include clear labelling so people know better what can and can’t be recycled, a nationally agreed set of rules so the same items can be recycled regardless of where someone lives, and limits on the use of plastics like PVC and polystyrene in packaging – all so less of it is burned and releasing harmful emissions.

Our National Infrastructure Assessment also makes clear the need for a target for 50 per cent of our electricity to come from renewables by 2030, and we want to see more research and trials into alternatives to fossil fuels for our heating, such as hydrogen and heat pumps.

And we have urged the Government to ramp up their efforts to make our housing stock more energy-efficient, by investing in installing insulation and other measures in our social housing, and trialling innovative new measures in owner-occupied homes.

But as well as taking measures to reduce our carbon emissions, we also need to act now to protect our communities from the impact that climate change could have in years to come – in particular, extremes of weather such as drought and floods.

In our National Infrastructure Assessment, we call on the Government to set a strategy for delivering a nationwide standard of resilience to flooding, with a rolling six-year funding programme to enable the planning and delivery of projects such as the latest defences.

And at the other extreme, to ensure we are prepared for more frequent droughts, we’ve urged water companies to act now to make our supplies much more resilient.

This includes halving leakages by 2050, increase investment in new infrastructure such as reservoirs and establish a system of water transfers from areas in surplus to areas in need.

It’s been encouraging that water companies are increasingly looking to rise to this challenge – and as well as protecting supply, a recent report by MPs echoed our additional finding of the need for greater powers to enable compulsory metering as part of efforts to cut consumer demand.

All these recommendations – on increasing electric car use, reducing waste, and improving energy efficiency – were published in July, just months before the IPCC’s report highlighted the urgency of the situation and the need to act now.

And last week, the Government called on the independent Committee on Climate Change to advise on how best to meet net zero carbon emissions here in the UK We will wait and see what the committee puts forward to Ministers – but that does not mean inaction in the meantime. Far from it.

From protecting communities against the worst impacts of climate change, to reducing carbon emissions to help tackle rising global temperatures, our National Infrastructure Assessment offers a clear path towards reducing the environmental impact of our infrastructure.

And this is all while also improving people’s quality of life and supporting sustainable economic growth across the whole country.

The UK Government now has until July next year – at the latest – to respond to our report.

I would urge all of you in this room to support us to make it happen, making the case clearly and regularly for our recommendations, including on supporting the roll-out of electric vehicles, tackling waste and improving the energy efficiency of our homes. That could be to the media, Ministers or MPs from across the political spectrum.

And as engineers I know that, as a profession, you will stand ready to offer your support and expertise to organisations, whether in the public or private sectors, to find those innovative solutions to help reduce, and protect communities from, the impact of global climate change.

Thank you.

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