Last edited 19 Jan 2021

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The Institution of Civil Engineers Institute / association Website

Forgetting the big picture when considering sustainability

Why do we consistently get lost in the detail and forget the bigger picture when considering sustainability? James York, Costain Group Corporate Responsibility Manager, considers this question.


A recurring sustainability conversation I find myself involved in is around Costain's company car fleet. This conversation normally starts with: “If Costain are serious about reducing CO2 emissions why do we not have Teslas (or other electric vehicles) in our company car fleet?” I believe this conversation occurs because people don’t fully understand what sustainability really is.

My initial response in this conversation is to accept that we could spend more money on our car fleet, perhaps making some difference to our total emissions. I do stress though that while I too would like a Tesla, we have missed the bigger picture. Surely we should be thinking about alternative ways to travel or even better, using the technology that we all have available to us to prevent the need to travel at all?

The conversation ends with me suggesting that if we did have additional resource to spend on a lower emitting car fleet, I still wouldn’t spend the money on premium electric vehicles.

This often raises eyebrows until I explain that if we were to invest an arbitrary sum of £500,000 in research on carbon capture or HGV platooning we could potentially make a much more significant and sustainable impact to UK CO2 emissions.

If you take out the specific details of this conversation, the theme of delving straight into the micro level detail is very common and as such perhaps also clouds our understanding of how we all contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

I don’t mind admitting that I too also found myself lost in the detail of all 17 SDGs, trying to develop plans for each goal. While my approach was not wrong and we do as an industry all contribute directly or indirectly to all 17 goals, our biggest influence is actually with 3, perhaps 4 – depending on your business.

By having a clear focus towards the SDGs that directly align with your company’s purpose you can begin to contribute to national solutions for the SDGs that I believe are most important for our industry: clean water and sanitation (SDG6), affordable clean energy (SDG7) and industry, innovation and infrastructure (SDG9).

So the next time someone asks you what sustainability means, celebrate the amazing contribution engineers play towards the UN SDGs and avoid the temptation of going into the detail.

One of the challenges I face as a sustainability professional is communicating such a broad spectrum of issues, priorities and the resulting actions that have been taken, to a wide group of stakeholders.

I am really pleased that Costain has released its inaugural sustainability report because this helps me do just that, both within and outside the company. By bringing to life how we are prioritising material sustainability issues, reporting against our targets and providing context with the SDGs, I hope we can move away from thinking that the best answer to all sustainability questions is always an employee car fleet of Teslas.

In October 2018, ICE together with the World Federation of Engineering Organisations are holding the first Global Engineering Congress to agree a worldwide response to deliver the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Find out more and book your place at the GEC

This article was originally published here by ICE on 26 April 2018. It was written by James York, Costain Group Corporate Responsibility Manager.

--The Institution of Civil Engineers

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