Technology/ Engineering for Sustainability and Circular Economy
The goal of net zero carbon emissions is being taken very seriously across the world with governments, associations and multinational companies coming together to achieve the target by 2050. It all began with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) urging to complete the target of reaching net zero carbon emissions by the year 2050.
The claim was made on the basis that the reaching of the said target is a must to keep the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius and to pre-industrial level by the end of 2100. Now, net zero is the state in which a country’s greenhouse emissions are removed from the atmosphere by way of carbon sequestration or simply absorption. Interestingly, ‘Net zero carbon’ was one of the most debated topics of discussion at the recently concluded COP26 – the world’s most significant summit on climate change which was hosted in the United Kingdom in November 2021. However, all the debates pointed towards one common solution – sustainability.
How to attain optimum sustainability? We often come across products and services which focus on the concept of ‘environment friendliness.’ However, along with it comes the eternal dilemma of increased costs. For businesses to chase sustainability, it is important to have the necessary capital since sustainable products and processes are more often expensive than their traditional counterparts.
Here’s where the concept of circular economy drops in. Now circular economy is a term that dates back to the 1960s and is much similar to what we know as recycling. However, in the case of a circular economy, it advocates for a zero-waste system. It emphasises adaptation and reuse of manufactured goods and assets in the most complete form in which they can continue to be useful. In simple words, all forms of waste, such as clothes, scrap metal and obsolete electronics, are returned to the economy or used more efficiently.
In the engineering industry, this is more challenging because sustainable raw material becomes very expensive. And it only goes on to create a domino effect on the other processes that follow. Yet, change is gradually being witnessed especially in the civil engineering sector with an increased effort on environment friendly ways to go about.
Circular Economy and Carbon Net Zero goals
The most commonly known idea to people to tackle the problems of carbon emission is by using renewable sources of energy. This is only half true, because as per an assessment carried out by Ellen MacArthur Foundation (an organization working to accelerate the transition to a circular economy) suggests that only 55% of CO2 emissions can be eliminated through using renewable sources of energy. The remainder 45% shall keep growing proportionately because of the carbon impact that materials such as steel, concrete, plastic, aluminum have. It is difficult to nullify their effect because manufacturing these emits a lot of CO2.
The carbon emissions can be reduced by building less, recycling, using renewable resources and reuse are ways which aim to bring about a shift in the economy from production and waste to regeneration and renewal. With respect to civil engineers and their clients, this is a framework provided by the circular economy.
Having carbon free construction projects is not far from reality. Infact, it is already in implementation in some of the UK’s prominent infrastructure projects. Goals of net zero carbon emissions and zero waste are, inherently, long-term goals because it is not easy to adapt and innovate easily. For instance, finding substitutes for materials, such as steel and concrete, used in the construction industry will not happen overnight. The fact that these are long term goals, it makes it all the more necessary that we take steps towards it. Hence, here are some recommendations to take these first steps towards the said goals:
- Substituting by “nothing”. The step of building less can be achieved when we can find alternative measures to meet the requirements without having to build any large structures. Hence, not only reducing the carbon emissions but also increasing efficient allocation of funds.
- Cradle to Cradle Lifespan : designing a model that is safe and sustainable which takes into consideration the future generation’s well being as well.
- Recycle, Renew, Reduce: The most basic and also most important step. By reducing, it also points towards using less of limited resources which cannot be replenished soon if not at all in construction projects.
An engineer’s mindset to innovate and evolve plays a key role in adopting such unorthodox practices. Engineers being considered problem solvers, need to give these concepts the priority and aim towards zero carbon emissions. With time, better alternatives will come to use, but it needs more serious initiation towards this goal.