OPINION: 2021 may be our 'last best chance' to get decisions right on climate-safe infrastructure

by Alan Belfield | Arup
Monday, 1 March 2021 11:10 GMT

Artificial intelligence helped Arup map ever corner of Shanghai to pinpoint varying combinations of green, blue and grey interventions. HANDOUT/Asla/Arup

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Mistakes made now that do not align with a net-zero emissions world could stay with us for decades to come

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry recently described COP26 as the world’s “last best chance” to avert the worst environmental consequences of climate change. I would go further. All decisions made on infrastructure in 2021 are our “last best chance”.

The pandemic has made us even more aware of our vulnerability and our need to become more resilient and to build back better.

Decisions made on infrastructure investment by governments this year will stay with us for 50 to 100 years to come. That’s a long time to live with any mistakes. 

As the leader of Arup, a global built environment firm, I am acutely aware that building and construction are responsible for 39% of all carbon emissions worldwide. I’ve never felt the sense of urgency more than I do now.  

With governments around the world understandably concerned with economic recovery from the pandemic and the immediate needs of their citizens, many risk making decisions on infrastructure investment too hastily. I urge them to focus on achieving net-zero emissions, because the jobs will follow, and they will be more sustainable and more stable. 

There are many exciting developments and innovations showing us that there are new ways of doing things. In the built environment we have the thinking and the tools available to allow us both to meet economic needs and build back better, more sustainably, and more resiliently. Digital tools and new economic models based on the circular economy are critical and are being rapidly adopted. 

For example, an Arup team has created a Land Use Machine Learning tool which allows us to rapidly produce high-quality data on land use from satellite images. It is so powerful it can distinguish between a tree nursery and a forest. It’s been used in Shanghai where it enabled a team to come up with sustainable solutions to ease flooding.

We’ve known for some time that nature-based solutions, when compared with their concrete infrastructure equivalents, can provide a variety of additional benefits, but didn’t have the tools to show what is possible and measure the full value of this alternative. In Shanghai we were able to quickly identify opportunities for the city to maximise its parks, lakes and other green features to reduce flood risk.

The tool is now being used on many of our projects – from helping a water utility company in the UK to make the economic case for investing in green and blue infrastructure, to allowing our landscape architects, ecologists and economists to develop a bankable scheme for an “orbital forest” surrounding the city of Tirana in Albania.

We also need to think smart when it comes to keeping existing, aging infrastructure in use, and new digital tools are making this possible. For example, in the Netherlands, a team is working to extend the life of two highway bridges that are no longer fit for purpose and would normally be removed.

Automated digital tools and structural health monitoring sensors are allowing the team to remove one bridge and renovate it offsite nearby and then use it to replace the second bridge, which has in turn been renovated and re-used elsewhere.

We have also been using AI and sensors to listen to the vibrations of buildings to understand their structural health, allowing us to make modifications – safely extending the lifetime of buildings and providing alternatives to demolition.


Driving this innovation is a growing understanding that our “take-make-waste” economic approach is outdated. We need to take the fastest possible path to a sustainable circular economy and crucially, it is driving new ways of doing business.

For instance, we’re talking to materials manufacturers about how to change their business model so that their customers, who process and supply the products to construction, can add more value by recovering end of life materials and returning them as feedstock.

For example, double glazing makers are crushing old windows and returning the ‘cullet’ (broken glass for glassmaking) to the manufacturers via the lorry delivering the new glass. This increases income for the processors, reduces carbon emissions and the glassmaker’s sand consumption, and prevents millions of tonnes of glass ending up in landfill.

We are also seeing how we can keep glass in service, without spending energy recycling it. If we can preserve glass in heritage projects, why can’t we extend this to every office building around the world?

The same philosophy is inspiring us to rethink other materials we use. We have developed an acoustic panel system made of bio-fabricated fungi material in collaboration with an Italian biotech start-up, Mogu. One of the first of its kind in the world, it is a more sustainable solution for refitting interiors, a hugely wasteful part of construction.

Whether using nature-based design to prevent flooding, fitting out interiors with fungi, making old concrete infrastructure intelligent, or suppliers offering glass-for-hire – if government and businesses focus on committing to one goal, net zero, I believe the innovation, the jobs, and the economic stability will come.

We all should focus on what we can achieve now in 2021, the year that is our “last best chance” of averting climate disaster.