A sustainable roadmap to net zero: interview with WSP’s Rachel Skinner

By on 19/07/2022 | Updated on 19/07/2022

WSP’s Executive Director has recently completed her term as ICE President. She speaks to Global Government Forum about how to get to net zero, boosting skills in transport, and meeting WSP’s own carbon reduction targets

The destination is clear. The UK Government has, like many others around the globe, committed to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. But what remains less clear is how the country – government, businesses, institutions and individuals – will actually meet the target. How can existing sources of emissions be made cleaner and/or replaced? How can new infrastructure make a carbon-positive contribution? And how can policy encourage people to make more sustainable choices in their day-to-day lives?

It’s these kinds of questions that Rachel Skinner, an executive director at world leading engineering professional services consultancy WSP, set out to answer during her recently completed term as President of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE). Her year as president focused around a campaign entitled “Shaping Zero”, alerting the civil engineering profession to the urgent need to take action now to meet the 2050 target.

“Our climate impact since the industrial revolution has been pretty staggering, and the built environment and infrastructure we’ve created is right at the heart of the problem. There is so much we need to do differently to think about what good infrastructure really looks like for the future,” she says.

This means there is a need to rethink many of the systems that society relies on – transport, water, energy, waste, buildings, digital infrastructure – to make them more sustainable. “We just have to look at this whole thing completely differently,” she says.

“This is about changing the entirety of how we do infrastructure – from the very earliest concept design to the tweaking and improvement of existing, very complicated and long-standing systems.”

Although Skinner readily acknowledges that she’s “not the only person who’s been out there talking about this”, her theme around shaping net zero – a play on words on the ICE’s motto “shaping the world” – has gone a long way to raise awareness within the civil engineering sectors and to set the challenge for climate action in what will be the defining task for many people’s working lives.

Looking back at her term, which ended last November, Skinner said that she can see “all sorts of change beginning to bubble” as a result. The challenge now is to keep it going – both from the perspective of carbon reduction and separately, adaptation to climate changes already happening.

Mitigation of carbon emissions is what Skinner characterises as the “attack” side of the drive to net zero. But, as her year at the helm of the ICE progressed, she grew to appreciate the importance of the corresponding defensive strategy for adaptation to climate changes that are already baked in to 2050 and beyond, because of past – and still growing – greenhouse gas emissions.

“Economies are built on the infrastructure systems that we have created and operate out there. These are used by all these billions of people every single day and the actual removal of carbon from the way that the world works today is one part of the task,” she says. “But there’s another side to this coin that you can’t separate out if we want to buy enough time to get to net zero across the world: climate resilience and adaptation.”

The sporting analogy of attack and defence is one Skinner likes as it is easy to understand and makes to co-dependency between mitigation and adaptation clear.

“This is a team sport, and we’re all in it together,” she says. “The attack bit is everything to do with mitigation to net zero – carbon reduction, avoiding producing carbon in the first place, and carbon capture to deal with processes where it cannot be fully removed. But you can’t just do that in splendid isolation. You’ve also got to say, ‘what happens if things change faster than expect? What happens if we’re dealing with more frequent natural disasters?’. We need a defence plan as well to be resilient, to be able to adapt, and to spot the risks as soon as we can.”

Skinner’s concern is that without urgent action on the defensive side, the effects of climate change in the decades ahead will prove so great that they will increasingly demand more of the resources and effort that should be going into mitigation. This is already the case in some parts of the world.

“There is a real scale and pace of change needed,” she says. “It is absolutely about some big changes in some places, of course it is, but at professional and personal levels it is also about small changes everywhere. And it’s about having the confidence to do those little things, knowing that you’re doing something that is on the right side of the line in terms of climate impact.”

Part of that confidence comes from national government – both in terms of setting the framework for net zero and in taking the actions required to make it real. Skinner says the industry is ready to embrace the challenge, but it still needs assurance “that this support won’t just fall away when things get a bit difficult”.

“There’s a there’s a real two-way street here in terms of what the government mandates and putting it into practice. Sustainability has to become an absolutely ‘inked in’ requirement and not just something that you say for now and then worry about delivering later. That’s just playing a game, that’s not actually doing the things we have to do; it wastes time.”

There’s a challenge across society, including in government, to “really mean it, and to show that we mean it” on net zero. “I would hope there is sufficient political will there. I think there is within the permanent staff teams [of public and civil servants] and I think there is general consensus across the political parties. It’s then a case of them doing everything they can to make it real through funding and by making tough decisions when they come along.”

Among the tough decisions faced by government now is how to respond to the energy crisis that has been catalysed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The rising price of gas has sparked a policy debate in the UK over whether to restart fracking and other areas of fossil fuel exploration.

Skinner says the need to bolster the UK’s energy security “should push us further into the renewables space and absolutely not to take the cop out solution, frankly, of going backwards into more local oil and gas exploration”.

This is the kind of signal industry will look at. “You can’t switch on new oil and gas supplies tomorrow – that’s a 30-year decision you’re making – and this is exactly the 30-year window when we shouldn’t be making that decision.”

Such long-term thinking is vital for infrastructure, and WSP’s own actions reflect the need to work now to achieve future sustainability. Its UK business has made an industry-leading pledge to half the carbon emissions of all designs and advice provided to clients by 2030.

This commitment requires the engineering professional services firm to consider how to half the carbon footprint of its designs – covering not only the materials that are specified in any design but also the emissions that are likely to result from the existence of the infrastructure, such as from a building’s heating and cooling systems or the use of a transport network.

“By 2030, we will have found ways to take out half of the carbon from the way that we advise our clients,” Skinner says. “That’s a huge commitment, but it is the right commitment in line with the scale of UK-wide and global change we need to see. It requires us to think really creatively and innovatively not just about the way we go about the design and the build but the whole lifecycle of infrastructure, so we help the industry to think long term and make good decisions.”

WSP is working out the baseline for emissions across the multiple sectors it works in and is learning a lot about the distinction between detailed design projects versus advisory commissions. Despite the progress that has been made on renewable construction and building methods, Skinner says the target will not simply be reached by applying existing best practice.

Instead, it will require wholesale new approaches. “We have set that goal as something to aspire to,” she says. “We will get there, but if you said to me today, ‘can you lay it out exactly in terms of precisely how you’re going to get there?’, the answer actually is no.

“Some of the technologies don’t yet exist, some of the innovations and insights aren’t yet there, some of the materials aren’t yet in common use. But that’s because the goal is eight years away, and we see so much change coming in these eight years.”

WSP was the first firm in the sector to set this goal, with similar objectives now being set by others. As well as sparking action across the industry, the pledge represents a rallying cry to the firm’s 60,000 employees around the world. “There is a huge amount that businesses like ours can do,” she says.

The challenge is huge, but the work is pivotal and massively rewarding. This is why Skinner, who by her own admission became a civil engineer almost by accident, has accepted the role as chair of the Department for Transport’s Transport Employment and Skills Taskforce. This group is focused on finding ways to understand and better broadcast the extensive skills that are needed in the transport sector, for example around net zero, while doing much more to attract a wider range of people from diverse backgrounds into careers and new opportunities in transport. .

“I did geography as a degree, with a focus on human geography – so people, places, culture and identity. I fell into a transport planning graduate role by accident because I applied for a local job that happened to be near home at the time, in the southwest of the UK,” she recalls.

“I thought it was it was a role for now but, almost straight away I could see the difference that careers in this space make to the world out there. That really appealed to me and I see that in the people I work with now all over the industry. What unites us is that we know we are trying to make a difference.”

Skinner has never left that company she joined as a graduate planner – although the firm she worked for has been taken over on three occasions, so she has had four employers. She rose through the transport practice to become head of the UK-wide transport team before she took on the role as ICE president, and now has an expanded role leading WSP’s Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) team, focused on business transformation across the sustainability space across not just the environment but also social and wider economic outcomes.

She is working on “how to make sure that, as we redefine what good outcomes and good solutions are, we remember there are other sustainable development goals out there beyond climate action. The true definition of sustainability is across social, environmental and economic improvement”.

Working to create, and embed, what Skinner calls “the articulation of what sustainability should mean” illustrates the vital importance of roles in the transport and the wider civil engineering sector – and the need to communicate the growing range of roles and skills as it works to get fit for the net zero future.

“People broadly speaking perceive engineering and infrastructure to be one thing and perhaps they don’t realise the intellectual challenge that goes with it,” Skinner says. “We need to get much better at communicating that range of skills, as well as the infrastructure work that people physically see out there in the world.”

Skinner’s work, then, is indeed shaping the world – and in the widest possible sense. And her infectious enthusiasm and optimism that the goals will be achieved makes you want to join her on the journey.

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