“Climate change is killing the poor, but the infrastructure sector can stop this”

Forum for the Future chair and ex-Atkins CEO Keith Clarke speaking at the Year in Infrastructure conference in Singapore.

“We can’t get the world to global warming of 1.5 °C on our own, but by doing nothing the infrastructure sector can ensure that no one else does either”. With this stark warning, Forum for the Future chair and ex-Atkins CEO Keith Clarke spelled out the crucial role of the construction and infrastructure industry in safeguarding the environment, not just for future generations, but for everyone here and now.

Clarke was giving a keynote address at the Bentley Year in Infrastructure conference in Singapore and it’s fair to say that his audience were hanging onto his every word during a fascinating, thought-provoking and at times provocative address. He told those present that circumstances would force construction businesses to change their business models, mainly because of two things - technology and climate change.

Increasing population growth would bring with it some massive challenges, Clarke said. These included land use, urbanisation, housing, social cohesion and transport. With the equivalent of six new Europes to be created by 2030, there was a massive market opportunity for infrastructure. But, Clarke said, it shouldn’t be the business opportunity that drove the industry. 700 million people remained poor in the world and that was not acceptable, he said.

Turning to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, Clarke highlighted the industry’s role in achieving them. “Infrastructure impacts on every single one of these goals and that means that the infrastructure sector is absolutely fundamental to solving the inequality and poverty in the world. That’s a very important thing for the industry,” Clarke said.

As the chair of a leading international sustainability non-profit, Clarke is very familiar with the science of climate change, but he asked whether construction could say the same. “Does science come to your boardroom?” he asked his audience in Singapore. “Business as usual means 4°C global warming and mass extinction. We kill the poor,” he said. A pin dropping moment in the hall for sure. 

“People are dying now because of climate change,” Clarke said and it was incumbent on the infrastructure sector to act – and not just through adaptation either. Radical change was needed. “If we keep adapting, then you get bigger answers to the same questions. Adaptation without mitigation is immoral and in the UK it’s probably illegal. It accelerates inequality,” he said.

“Change will have to happen at a rate of change we have not seen since wartime and existing business models would all be swept away,” he said. “Our industry is going to be transformational and you can make money out of this or you can go bankrupt! Engineering and construction need to act now to help curb global warming by designing and building for net-zero carbon. This is not CSR, this is science. We have to do it. Our clients will make us,” said Clarke.

The biggest threat to the environment, said Clarke, was the industry expecting someone else to solve the problem. “We should not expect someone else to solve this problem - we need to build solutions now and implement them to solve them,” he said. The infrastructure industry and the companies, organisations and people that work within it are crucial in not just saving but safeguarding the world for all generations. A massive responsibility for the sector and one it cannot duck.

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