High water levels in the Bow River during the 2013 Alberta floods

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Sustainable engineering integration helps mitigate climate change

The climate is changing. It is no longer a discussion of a future event, as we are already seeing the impacts of climate change on communities globally today.

There are two high-level strategies which are applicable in our efforts to address climate change: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which could include protecting the natural environment, supporting the local economy, reducing waste/ pollution, and creating more efficient systems. Mitigation is conducted through elements of sustainability.

Adaptation is about building robust and resilient communities to reduce our vulnerability and exposure to climate-based risks. This may include raising dykes that provide flood protection or contingency planning.

One strategy can be implemented without the other; however, this could be a missed opportunity. For instance, an adaptive measure for cities with drier and hotter weather could be an increased use of mechanical air conditioning; however, this contributes to further climate change. Rather, a sustainable community would incorporate green spaces, stormwater impoundments, efficient building envelopes, and groundsource cooling systems.

We also need to understand the synergies between adaptive and mitigative strategies, and evaluate the benefits and effects. For example, flood walls can protect inland areas; however, these walls are often massive, require tremendous energy to construct, and have adverse impact on ecosystems and natural flood protection mechanism, as seen in the Mississippi Delta.

How should we address climate change? Is it about incorporating the components of energy efficiency and phasing to renewable energy? Do we consider water conservation, natural habitat protection, site restoration, waste reduction, infrastructure resiliency, social equity, and local economy stability? The answers are yes and yes. Do we need to incorporate all of these elements into every project? No, but we should ask the question, to ensure that we do not ultimately regret that we have missed opportunities.

Sustainable Design

Sustainable engineering integration requires the collaboration of scientists, landscape architects, planners, and engineers to innovate, share, and discover solutions that help mitigate and adapt to changing climate. Understandably, our success also depends on governmental policies, and the buy-in of our clients to accelerate the implementation process.

Leading the Way

Recognizing the importance of sustainable design, in 2007, Associated Engineering formed the Sustainable Integration Design Interest Group. This group includes technical leaders from various disciplines to educate our staff on the principles of sustainability. Concurrently, our President and Senior Management developed a Carbon Neutral Policy and established a team to guide and advance our progress to becoming a carbon neutral company, which we achieved in 2009.

More recently, in November 2014, we hosted a three-day conference on climate change, and invited colleagues, clients, and leaders in the industry to share their climate change experiences and knowledge. Subsequently, Associated Engineering formed a Climate Change Task Force to continue the discussion, develop training programs, and provide guidance and resources to our staff.

A Holistic Approach

Many tools are readily available to guide sustainable design integration. For example, LEED™, Living Building Challenge, Envision®, and 5 Greenroads™ are rating systems that have been used in buildings, various infrastructure, and transportation, respectively. Whether or not a project is seeking accreditation, the rating systems provide accepted guiding principles for incorporating sustainability into projects.

Associated Engineering has facilitated and assisted our clients in the decision-making process by using analytical processes with risk assessments.

Specific to climate change vulnerability assessments, we have used the Public Infrastructure Engineering Vulnerability Committee (PIEVC) Engineering Protocol to assess the vulnerability of water treatment infrastructure in Calgary, wastewater systems in Metro Vancouver, and buildings in Saskatoon.

There is no shortage of information and tools to support climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. The fundamental understanding of integrating sustainable design is a holistic approach. It is the implementation of best management practices to achieve long-term benefits and optimize a system, while protecting the environment, enhancing our quality of life, and achieving the project objectives. Most importantly, it’s our responsibility as professionals to preserve our environment for future generations.

About the Author: 

Juliana Tang, M.Sc., P.Eng., LEED AP, is a GeoEnvironmental Engineer and Sustainable Design Specialist with our Regional Infrastructure group in Edmonton. She has 17 years of experience in environmental engineering and has been a key team member in environmental, municipal and industrial projects.