I recently read the US Climate Change Science Program’s report “Coastal Sensitivity to Sea-Level Rise: A Focus on the Mid-Atlantic Region.” Released in January, 2009, this is part of the US Govt’s documents that address the public policy issues surrounding climate change and its effects. Find more information at GlobalChange.gov.
This report has some interesting bits of information for engineers to consider:
Consensus in the climate science community is that the global climate is changing, mostly due to mankind’s increased emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, from burning of fossil fuels and land-use change (measurements show a 25 percent increase in the last century). Warming of the climate system is unequivocal. [my emphasis added]
…there is currently no consensus on the upper bound of global sea-level rise…
Recent studies suggest the potential for a meter or more of global sea level rise by the year 2100, and possibly several meters within the next several centuries.
…the rate of rise appears to have accelerated over twentieth century rates, possibly due to atmospheric warming causing expansion of ocean water and ice-sheet melting…
With a substantial acceleration of sea-level rise, traditional coastal engineering may not be economically or environmentally sustainable in some areas.
…it is likely that most wetlands will not survive acceleration in sea-level rise by 7 millimeters per year. Wetlands may expand inland where low-lying land is available but, if existing wetlands cannot keep pace with sealevel rise, the result will be an overall loss of wetland area in the Mid-Atlantic. The loss of associated wetland ecosystem functions (e.g., providing flood control, acting as a storm surge buffer, protecting water quality, and serving as a nursery area) can have important societal consequences, such as was seen with the storm surge impacts associated with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in southern Louisiana, including New Orleans, in 2005.
Loss of tidal marshes would seriously threaten coastal ecosystems, causing fish and birds to move or produce fewer offspring. Many estuarine beaches may also be lost, threatening numerous species.
Nearly one-half of the 6.7 billion people around the world live near the coast and are highly vulnerable to storms and sea-level rise.
Nationally, most current coastal policies do not accommodate accelerations in sea-level rise.
Most coastal regions are currently managed under the premise that sea-level rise is not significant and that shorelines are static or can be fixed in place by engineering structures. The new reality of sea-level rise due to climate change requires new considerations in managing areas to protect resources and reduce risk to humans.
This is scary stuff. If we underestimate the potential for climate change even a small amount, then it is unlikely that engineers can help. Typically engineers err on the side of caution. We are a conservative bunch, and uncertainty is explicitly and implicitly managed through the standard use of Load and Resistance Factors. However, the vast majority of civil engineers in the US are still not convinced of climate change at this point.
And while most people feel that governments are working towards a solution, the truth is that almost all governments have decided to sacrifice coastal areas to avoid the political reality of reducing emissions to really safe levels. Most governments have decided to “limit” global warming by redefining “safe levels” to whatever level is politically convenient.
I guess we are all counting on “geoengineering” to save the day, but that is probably the most expensive and least satisfactory solution of all (see Real Climate entry for more information). For those wondering just what Coastal Engineering can do for us, see my earlier post about San Francisco or just look at the multi-billion dollar MOSE Project being built to protect Venice.
Neither Coastal Engineering nor Geoengineering will be our savior. The cure of Geoengineering is almost as bad as the disease. Coastal Engineering is an expensive solution that requires us to choose certain areas for preservation. What is likely is that some areas are selected as too important to cede. The remainder will probably be lost because of rapid changes in sea level. The consequences of this change will be severe. Wetlands that shelter endangered bird species and protect coastal areas from hurricane storm surge will be lost.
The receding shoreline begins shifting so rapidly that whole towns must be abandoned or moved once per decade. The beautiful fishing villages and beaches of the Northeast will be decimated. The debate over Galveston and New Orleans becomes a moot point, as we slowly watch the Strand and Bourbon Street become modern versions of Atlantis.
So the next time you see a cost-benefit argument against the Waxman-Markey bill (such as “Time for Inaction on Global Warming” published in the WSJ), or a video from the American Petroleum Institute warning about job losses, try to remember that the cost of inaction is probably higher than represented. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
I was faced with an interesting truth this week. As an unofficial, non-scientific poll in ASCE Smartbrief showed, the majority of civil engineers don’t understand climate change. The poll was included in their daily email (which I find very informational and strongly recommend it). The reason for the poll was because of a reader’s comments to ASCE:
I was hoping that engineers would take a progressive view on the issue of global warming and climate change, but I wasn’t holding my breath on the issue. For those who can’t read the options, they are:
- Our use of fossil fuels has created a crisis. We need emission reduction regulations to halt climate change
- We should look into alternative energy sources, but climate change isn’t as dire as some predict.
- The climate-change models are so flawed, we have no idea what’s really going on.
- Climate change is natural. Regulations will only benefit some companiees and will hurt most of the rest of us.
Voting has ended and the results were posted in the following day’s Smartbrief. Here are the final results:
Results show that the majority of engineers are uncomfortable with the topic of climate change, believing either that it is not caused by humans, not a real problem, or not enough is known to justify intervention. In fact, only 25% of engineers thought emission reduction regulations were required.
Once again, I am concerned that ASCE is trying to portray themselves as “leaders of sustainability” but not spending any time educating their own members. (see my previous posts on ASCE
) The consequences of global warming are severe, but many engineers have chosen to ignore the risks completely. A great comment by Daniel Kurkjian
on ASCE’s blog summarizes what ASCE itself should be communicating to the profession:
Scientists are in agreement that carbon dioxide increases global temperatures and that can have significant negative effects on our way of life. Civil engineers have a role to plan in lobbying regulators to make sure that new rules are phased in and do not cripple construction and infrastructure development.
It’s unbelievable to hear comments on the ASCE website claiming global warming is not real and the carbon dioxide is somehow not a pollutant. At elevated concentrations in the atmosphere CO2 raises temperatures, which can have devasting impacts on climate and the way we live. That defines a pollutant; something that can damage the enviroment at elevated concentrations.
It’s understandable to fear an over-reach by the goverment that hurts business. However, the way to deal with that isn’t to deny reality and claim global warming isn’t associated with carbon dioxide pollution. The role of the civil engineer is to make the government aware of the imapcts of their regulations and to seize the business opportunities that will come with being current on regulations.
This is an excellent statement, I hope that ASCE will continue to hear these comments and realize that being a leader in sustainability means educating ASCE members. As this comment so rightly points out, it is unbelievable that ASCE would entertain the idea that climate change has not been associated with CO2 increases and human activity.
The problem with global warming “skeptics” is that they are not skeptics at all. A true skeptic is one who approaches an issue with an open mind, refusing to be swayed by arguments until the evidence is presented. Instead, those who deny global warming are the opposite of skeptics, having decided their opinion before evidence was presented. For a quick look at the evidence that is accepted by the global scientific community, which Daniel Kurkjian referred to in his comment, see my earlier post on Global Warming Potential.
ASCE continually states how the civil engineering profession must be a leader in sustainability. Recently, ASCE has come out ready to battle the causes and effects of climate change. It’s a good idea, because engineers will need to be involved.
So, to establish itself as a leader in sustainability, ASCE has achieved the following:
- included non-binding, wishy-washy language requiring sustainability in their code of ethics (posted entry about this here)
- started a committee to create a green design certification program (my take here)
- put out a press release of an agreement with CSCE and ICE (pdf of agreement) committing… actually I can’t quite understand what they are doing. It says something about “assisting all governments through the development of a low-carbon infrastructure road map setting out key steps up to 2050.”
I guess we civil engineers will get around to that leading in the sustainability issue pretty soon. The agreement includes terms like “develop” “evaluate” “consider”. I have a hard time believing that we still have questions. It has been 12 years since the Kyoto Protocol was abandoned by the US, it has been over 2 years since the IPCC report concluded that anthropogenic climate change was indeed occurring and likely to cause bad things to happen, and the draft Waxman-Markey bill has been out since March of this year.
My point here is that civil engineers are being awfully passive in their attempts to lead sustainability. Somehow ASCE and civil engineers think we need to develop new ideas. The press release even proposes committing resources to carbon sequestration, but only when cost-effective. Guess what, it ain’t cost-effective (BBC article).
If ASCE wants to be a leader on sustainability they can catch up to the scientists and experts that are leading the way. They should announce unequivocal support for the UN’s Copenhagen meeting and the ultimate goal of serious carbon emission reduction. Civil Engineers should support the highest levels of emission reduction, no political or economic excuses should prevent us from arguing for what is right.
In the meantime the USGBC has started up a tremendously successful green building ratings program and independent architects have achieved deep committments with Architecture 2030 and greening of the campus initiatives. That is leadership. It is effective and it is inspiring.
On the other hand, ASCE’s press release does mention addressing transportation issues. Great start, but if you look at the cover for their new publication Guiding Principles for the Nation’s Critical Infrastructure you will see the main focus is !Highway Construction! Sustainability is essentially equated with resiliency in the document, which I guess means you build the infrastructure even bigger and stronger. It makes me wonder if the organization really understands what sustainability is.
In the latest ASCE president’s blog, it almost seems as if ASCE doesn’t want a cap on emissions. It at least wasn’t clear to the commenters, all of whom have agreed (or claimed to agree) with the entry and have been convinced to write their politicians asking them to strike it down based on no evidence of climate change. It’s a shame, because we’ve already found ourselves in a deep hole and we haven’t even realized that we’re the ones with the shovel.
My youth and contrarian tendencies sometimes causes me frustration, but I know ASCE is moving in the right direction. Quoting a recent seminar by Jeff Speck “you can always trust Americans to make the right decisions once they have exhausted all the other possibilities”
Also in the news:
Texas Transportation Institute report on Urban Mobility ranks the major US cities in terms of rush hour problems, measuring lost time, lost money, and excess pollution generated.
I thought it would be interesting to contrast Indianapolis vs. Portland, two cities which have vastly different transportation strategies. A typical complaint in Indianapolis is the lack of a public transportation system. A typical complaint (or at least based on comments from internet forums) is that Portland’s strategies focusing on alternative transportation methods only work because the highways are so underdeveloped that people have no choice but to get out of their car.
Admittedly, the cities are not very similar. But looking at urban population, the comparison is not unjustified. Portland’s policies on urban growth boundaries increase the density of the city, but this comparison is just for fun so I’m not going to look too closely at how to adjust the numbers to account for differences in the two cities.So let us consult the ultimate arbiter, statistics. The cities have the following breakdown:
Portland (2007 report here)
urban population: 1,800,000 (24th)
density: 3333 /sq.mi.
metro population: 2,159,000
lost time rank: 20
lost money rank: 24
excess pollution rank: 24
Indianapolis (2007 report here)
urban population: 1,070,000 (38th)
density: 2098 /sq.mi.
metro population: 1,715,000
lost time rank: 34
lost money rank: 29
excess pollution rank: 30
Looking at the lost time ranking, you can see that both Indianapolis and Portland have slightly worse congestion than their city sizes would suggest. But obviously, both Portland and Indianapolis have been equally successful in their attempts to limit the effect of traffic congestion. Portland has invested heavily in alternative transportation infrastructure, while Indianapolis has expanded their highway system.
However, when you look at lost money and excess pollution generated, Portland seems to fare better than Indianapolis. Portland’s ranking is on par with its size, whereas Indianapolis is generating much more pollution than its size should allow.
As we move closer to putting a price on CO2 emissions, I think the costs incurred by gasoline will continue to rise. Indianapolis’ rankings will fall even further, meaning the city is becoming less efficient and less competitive for future jobs and employers.
As more and more structural engineers have been considering their role in sustainability, there have been more resources available. The best sources of useful information concerning structural engineering and sustainable development are the May and June editions of Structure Magazine
. This printed publication is made available freely to all NCSEA and SEI members, but anyone can access the online articles.
Sustainability articles typically address either the entire design process or specific strategies. This provides a convenient way to separate them into categories. First up, we have the articles that address design in general:
Overall Design Strategies
Once again, Structure Magazine leads the way with an article “Sustainable Buildings and the Structural Engineer.” This article delineates all of the issues that sustainable develop should address and then shows how the structural engineer can impact the design. This is a great way to see all of the ideas laid out in one easy to grasp format.
Another article that I found useful is hosted at GoStructural.com (publisher of the trade magazine Structural Engineer). This is actually a collection of articles all on the same topic of sustainability.
Reuse of existing structures
One of the great things about sustainable development is that it recognizes the importance of historic preservation, or retaining existing buildings of any type. You may have heard the expression “The greenest building is one that’s already built.” This is the title of an article published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, written by Carl Elefante. It’s a great introduction into how these two topics work together, and a great rallying cry for those who feel that LEED credits don’t properly address the issue.
Building on this call to reuse rather than tear-down and rebuild, another Structure Magazine article “Missed Opportunities in Structural Sustainablility” quantifies exactly how effective it would be to reuse a building. The bottom line: very effective. Essentially, this article shows that tearing down a building in just about any condition is the least green thing that can be done.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has issued a whitepaper laying out exactly why reusing buildings is sustainable, extending the definition to include economics, social benefits, and environmental benefits. Another great read for people looking for ways to change policy and public opinion.
Lastly, the NTHP has put up a fun slideshow of pictures of structures submitted by readers that show promise for renovation or adaptive reuse. So here is Reuse it! (a Flickr group). Feel free to add your own.
Minimizing use of materials
An interesting editorial in Structure Magazine on the topic of “Voided Two-Way Flat Plate Slabs“. This is a particular strategy of sustainable design called dematerialization. Basically, if you consume fewer resources for a building of similar strength then you are doing good for the environment. Of course, you can’t put that sort of strategy into a ratings system (e.g. LEED) because then every engineer will claim they are using less material. The USGBC handled this problem in other trades by creating a baseline case, so the strategy may still work for structural engineering. But few people want to encourage engineers to use less material, so it probably won’t be included for that reason.
Maximizing material effectiveness
Another interesting Structure Magazine article addresses materials that act as structure, insulation, and soundproofing. “The Road to Code Acceptance for Autoclaved Aerated Concrete” details how AAC is being (slowly) approved by code provisions, as well as how to use it in your buildings even today by getting a per-project approval from your local jurisdiction.
And finally, news from the Pakistan Straw Bale and Appropriate Building (PAKSBAB). This group has more of a “damn the torpedoes” mentality because there really are no trade groups that would profit from such a low cost building material. So the only way this type of material will ever get used is from prototypes and bona fide living experiments. I wish them the best of luck!
On a basic level, an engineer’s primary job is to manage risk. The problem is that all current methods of engineering risk management deal exclusively with individual projects. Unfortunately, there is no forum for a discussion of systemic risk.
Systemic risk was exposed recently in the financial system. The Great Recession, as I’ve heard it called. In this case, financiers were engaging in business dealings and signing a separate contract with an insurance provider to pay costs in case of a default – a default credit swap. Taken as individual transactions, each one was well-managed and almost risk-free for the holder of the assets. All of the credit rating agencies were in agreement, these companies had managed their risk very well. But when you look at the whole system, where was the risk going? Was it just disappearing into thin air?
The answer, as we found out, was that the risk was just being hidden by complicated instruments. Maybe it is an appropriate time to discuss whether this same process is at work in the field of structural engineering. By minimizing risk to individual projects are we amplifying the risks to the system?
Engineers owe responsibilities to different parties in a complicated web of liability. I think the best clarification of what we are trying to accomplish is stated in the ASCE’s Code of Ethics (1997) Fundamental Canon #1:
Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties.
We act in the best interests of our clients and the public welfare, but it is not always clear what actions we should take to meet these requirements. Our developments do not exist in a vacuum, our designs affect the environment to a great degree. Looking at a quick example in civil engineering, there is plenty of evidence that installing levees down the Mississippi River valley has had some negative consequences:
- Lack of regular flooding has reduced alluvial floodplain buildup, reducing natural barriers to storm surges
- Development alongside the river has been encouraged, as the risk is perceived to be much lower than it actually is
As one can see, this is a good example of increasing systemic risk solely because of reducing risk to a bunch of individual projects. When the system breaks down, a huge amount of development is affected.
Likewise, we can see a similar process occurring in structural engineering projects. Engineers are partly responsible for some of the most intense greenhouse gas emissions on the planet. Buildings today use almost 1/2 of all energy consumed in the world. Construction activities contribute to C02 emissions directly and indirectly. Concrete production alone (because of cement) accounts for 5% of annual worldwide carbon emissions.
Engineers are culpable because we do little to reduce the concrete consumption on a project. Concrete is used for shallow foundations, retaining walls, shearwalls, and sometimes just as dead weight. Concrete isn’t the only material that will work, but it is the easiest best solution. Some building codes won’t even allow an engineer to specify anything else for foundations. We are so intolerant of risk that we require reinforced concrete in a part of the project that typically won’t cause a problem even if it failed.
This matters because we are continually raising the quantity of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. At some point, sea levels will rise, storms will gain strength, wildfires will be more severe, and global conflict will erupt over limited resources. This is the systemic risk that structural engineers face right now. If we are serious about meeting our ethical obligations to protect the public welfare then we need to change our habits, and quickly.
Engineers and the building code industry needs to find out why we are specifying so much concrete and provide guidance on other options. Specifying high levels of fly ash or slag cement is a good start, but since we’ll need to be carbon neutral soon then we need to go further. Expensive technologies might help the US, but we must figure out solutions that are scalable and useful in the developing world.
I don’t think there is a silver bullet solution for this problem, but I do think it is important for engineers to remember that they have obligations that extend beyond the boundary line of their latest development.
With our current debate over climate change policy likely to be derailed by climate change skepticism, maybe it’s time we start looking at ways to accommodate climate change rather than preventing it. Civil engineers will be called upon to perform some of the largest public works projects since the Panama Canal all along the US Coastal areas, just to keep the status quo (i.e. not “waterworld”).
So, if you think “Cap & Trade” policy is expensive, just imagine how much money it will cost to do this in every port city of the US. Honorable Mention awards also listed here. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as they say.
Recently, an in-depth study was released comparing the environmental impacts of different transportation options. The interesting part about this study is how closely it looks at the options, including the impact of the built infrastructure supporting the trains, airplanes, and cars. Often, you will see opponents of cars discuss how much they distort land use, but nobody has quantified and compared cars vs. other options. Until now.
The actual article is here: “Environmental assessment of passenger transportation should include infrastructure and supply chains“. The original article is a good read and the source for most of the discussion that has followed. There are many news organizations that have published their own take on the study, for example:
Fuel Emissions Focus “Too Narrow” (BBC News)
Planes, trains or automobiles? Air travel may be no worse for the environment than rail (Scientific American)
Train can be worse for climate than plane (New Scientist)
Think twice about ‘green’ transport, say scientists (AFP)
That New Study That Shows Planes Are Greener Than Trains? It Does No Such Thing (The Infrastructurist)
My favorite part of this story is that the lead author is a good friend from college. The shorter article was based on many years of collecting data and building models, which have been cataloged online. This study has been needed in the infrastructure debate for a long time. An honest assessment of transportation, land use, fuel choice, and infrastructure without a hidden agenda. The common sense answer to the ultimate question, What’s the most green transportation system?: “it depends”. But at least, now we know what it depends on.
In the past decade, scientists have presented solid proof that:
- The Earth, on average, is warming
- Humans are responsible
- Disastrous consequences will occur unless we change our habits
These points are in agreement with the IPCC, the US EPA, and the majority of environmental scientists. However, it is a person’s right to decide for themselves, so please encourage others to review the scientific findings and reports and then come to a conclusion. Anyone who remains a “global warming skeptic” should be made aware that they aren’t necessarily wrong, but they are very unlikely to be correct.
The US must base its climate change policy on what is probable, not on fringe science or unproven technology. Global warming is not a risk for the planet, it is a risk to us. Rapid climate change could destroy cities and habitable land, result in massive extinctions that could unravel the ecological food chains we depend on, and cause great conflict over dwindling fresh water supplies.
This means we must cut greenhouse gas emissions sharply by 2030 if not earlier, and probably go carbon neutral by 2050 if not earlier. An example of good policy would be to follow the recommendations presented in an article in the latest issue of Nature (BBC discussion here). Eliminating coal-fired power plants is one of the most important ways to meet our goals. The total greenhouse gas content of the atmosphere in PPM is the number we need to focus on.
However, much of the discussion in the political sphere seems to completely reject current scientific understanding, and instead argue for more coal and cheaper energy. Bad idea. I am not interested in slinging mud on any of the political ideologies out there, I just wanted to go on the record as saying any policies out of this group would probably do a lot of harm. Politically, economically, and environmentally disastrous.
Last month, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) announced the creation of the House GOP American Energy Solutions Group, meant to “work on crafting Republican solutions to lower energy prices for American families and small businesses.” Helping lead the way toward finding those solutions? Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN).
Here are some interesting quotes pulled from Rep. Bachmann’s public statements concerning greenhouse gas emissions:
“[T]here isn’t even one study that can be produced that shows carbon dioxide is a harmful gas. There isn’t one such study because carbon dioxide is not a harmful gas, it is a harmless gas. Carbon dioxide is natural. It is not harmful. It is part of Earth’s life cycle.” [4/22/09]
“And the science indicates that human activity is not the cause of all this global warming. And that in fact, nature is the cause, with solar flares, etc.” [3/22/09]
“The big thing we are working on now is the global warming hoax. It’s all voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax.” [3/15/08]
“I don’t think it has been established as a fact that global warming is the issue of the day. One thing we need to do is look at the science.” [10/10/06]