With climate disaster looming, there is no time to lose

A village in Bangladeshi affected by flooding as a result of global warming.

Declaring a Climate Emergency must be the precursor to massive changes in the way the world steers future development, argue BuroHappold's Mike Cook and Arup's Tim Chapman.

Around 17 years is the length of time on current extrapolations before the earth passes 450 parts per million concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere and matches the levels of some 35 million years ago. 

Because of the greenhouse effect and the higher temperatures that were then created, water levels were tens of metres higher than now. The evidence is clear - that climate change will lead to large parts of the globe becoming uninhabitable as changing rainfall patterns and higher temperatures lead to food shortages, the sea level rise will submerge all our coastal cities and the remnant land will suffer an increased rate of natural disasters.

Seventeen years is also the length of time it takes for a large capital project to come to fruition; a project on the scale necessary to change society. Very many of these megaprojects will be needed for us to change our ways of living so we emit far less greenhouse gas pollution and have a chance of averting catastrophe.

Why does this matter? We continue to burn fossil fuels in ever greater amounts, chucking more and more pollution into the atmosphere. We are still building coal-fired and gas-fired power stations all over the world. More than half of the world’s fossil fuel emissions have been released since 1988, the year leading scientists made it widely known that these emissions are heating the planet. We are still driving economies based on an assumption that the earth’s finite resources are unlimited and the earth’s delicately balanced ecosystem is indestructible. 

The pressure to develop is occurring at an increasing rate as more of humanity is taken out of subsistence survival into a less precarious state and able to live more productive lives – as they have every right to do. Meanwhile the over-consuming nations over-consume more and more. So, this hugely welcome success story for humanity comes with a sting in the tail which is based on us mortgaging our future survival as a species.

Yet we do understand what is happening and we do have the skills to reverse it. Engineers and other built environment professionals are at the heart of the solution. What needs to happen is a rapid acceleration to implement much of what is known about sustainable and regenerative development in parallel with a recognition at every level that our development targets must embrace social and planetary health. This demands a paradigm shift.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a concerned citizenry were agitating and lobbying our governments for change to protect our future and avert catastrophe? We are starting to see this happen with Extinction Rebellion on the streets and with professions, cities and national governments declaring Climate Emergency, agreeing to act and instigating serious controls on development - 85% of UK adults are said to be concerned about global warming.

With the Declaration of Climate and Biodiversity Emergency across the construction industry (, firms are pledging to set new priorities and accelerate the introduction of better ways of working. Importantly we are agreeing to work together more closely and share information and best practice, agreeing to drive rapidly towards zero carbon construction, supporting the UK government’s declared, and legally binding, aims.

We seem to have been sleep-walking into catastrophe. Declaring Climate Emergency must be the precursor to massive changes in the way we steer future development. We need to prioritise actions that secure better outcomes for society and the planet. We need to start now, because we have left it so very late.

Mike Cook is a partner at BuroHappold and Tim Chapman is director of infrastructure at Arup.