A deal on carbon reduction targets in next month’s Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen could create a boom for UK consultants working overseas
It is less than a month until the world’s leaders arrive in Copenhagen to try and reach a deal on climate change. If a way is found to break the current deadlock and come up with a successor to the Kyoto treaty, industrialised countries will agree reduction targets for greenhouse gas emissions and developing countries such as China will put limits on the growth of their emissions.
Of course, any cuts in emissions targets will directly affect construction. After all, 42% of emissions come from the built environment, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that carbon from buildings could double by 2030. What’s more, research by the UN had found that emissions from buildings could be reduced by up to a half at no significant cost.
So although any new targets may not have a big impact on the UK – our legislation is already among the toughest in the world – for UK consultants looking to work overseas, it could be the start of a boom. Paul King, chief executive of the UK Green Building Council, has said the UK is well placed to deliver the skills needed by developing countries. So what puts UK consultants in such a strong position?
According to Crispin Mattson, UK building services director of consulting engineer Ramboll, there are two kinds of skills: those involving energy generating technologies such as waste-to-heat systems and renewables, and those required for making new and existing buildings more energy efficient.
It’s in the second of these areas that UK consultants have a competitive advantage. Britain has set itself an ambitious timetable to cut emissions, which includes making new homes zero carbon by 2016, with other buildings to follow by 2019. This means that the UK has had to grapple with a lot of the issues other countries might face in the future. “We’ve been dragged there before everyone else so we have a competitive advantage in terms of our knowledge and technology,” says King.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Simon Hancock, director of building services at Atkins. He says developing countries are increasingly seeking the advice of UK consultants. “I think that demand will become stronger. It is clear the UK has had a low-carbon agenda for some time now and as engineers we are used to rapidly moving goalposts.”
This has put some firms ahead of their international rivals: Arup is already helping clients in Australia and the US meet the sort of targets that might come out of Copenhagen. Alistair Guthrie, global practice leader for sustainable buildings, says although there aren’t many firms in the UK that really understand the engineering basis of energy efficiency, their number will grow significantly. The US didn’t sign up to the Kyoto protocol but it’s still moving ahead on cutting emissions. A number of states, led by California, have federal laws that require them to achieve a LEED “excellent” rating for all state-funded buildings. The passing of the climate change bill in October, which calls for a 15% cut in current emissions by 2020, has created fresh impetus, although the targets being talked about for Copenhagen will require even greater reforms. “This is a market that will increase as these standards become mandatory and will allow us to grow our businesses there,” says Guthrie.
In the short term, Guthrie sees the US, Australia, China, Brazil and India as key markets. China is expected to build twice the current office space of the US between the turn of the millennium and 2020 and has said it recognises the UK’s leadership in low carbon design. UK Trade & Investment, the government body that helps exporters, is looking for UK consultants with a presence in mainland China and the skills to help deliver sustainable buildings. “China and South-east Asia have been talking about these issues for some time and they’ll become mandatory quickly,” says Guthrie. But he warns that it won’t be long before the Chinese start doing it for themselves. The country is already building links with many UK universities to train its own engineers.
Other markets include South Africa, which is planning to build 14 million new homes, South America – still an unknown quantity to a lot of UK consultants – eastern Europe and Russia. Brazil, South America’s biggest construction market, expects energy use to double by 2030, and Russia is still expecting robust growth despite the downturn.
Simon Smith, a design director of Ramboll UK, says North Africa will be another big market. “We’re already working in Libya and from a climatic point of view these markets are more suited to the lessons we’ve learned in the UK. They also accept British Standards and Eurocodes, which helps hugely.”
Where the British have a particular advantage is that English is widely spoken, and we have a reputation for inventive and free-thinking design. Other soft skills include a flair for presentation (compared with our European counterparts, if not the Americans), in particular, the ability to demonstrate designs using interactive visualisations.
We’re also well placed to appreciate the sort of issues a lot of these countries are going to face, says Smith. “Our colleagues in Denmark have been practising sustainable design since the seventies, but it is so integrated in their approach that they aren’t always best placed to see where these countries are coming from.”
In terms of the technical skills required, countries first need to put in place the legislation, codes and standards to measure and implement cuts. Germany is helping Russia with its regulations and WSP has been helping governments in Sweden and Australia, as well as developing carbon strategies for cities such as Dubai, Johannesburg and Abu Dhabi’s sustainable city, Masdar.
“Most countries have some basic energy efficiency regulations that are not enforced,” says Dan Dowling, an associate with WSP Environment and Energy, “but they’re an essential building block and the first thing they need to do is get the regulatory and enforcement systems in place.” These will need to be broadened out to include things such as water, materials and waste, he adds.
Expertise will also be required in masterplanning and infrastructure design, as well as predicting projects’ future energy use. The passive reduction of energy consumption if also key. “Throwing technology at a problem isn’t always the answer, in particular if there isn’t the money or the skilled people needed to operate it,” says Hancock. Reducing waste, specifying the right materials and analysing the embodied energy of construction methods are also important.
Hancock says Atkins has gained knowledge from studying its finished projects. “It’s important to be able to go to a client and say this is what we’ve done, this is what we know. This is one of our most powerful exports – you can’t do this sort of thing overnight as projects take years to complete.”
British engineers have also had to overcome the lack of skilled workers to deliver things such as airtight building envelopes and integrated renewable systems. Simple solutions will be especially beneficial to developing countries that lack trained specialist contractors.
So if a deal is struck in Copenhagen, UK consultants could be in with a golden opportunity. “I can see the market lasting for at least 10 years,” says Dowling. But there are a few words of warning. Smith, who teaches engineering at Cambridge, says UK universities should look now at tailoring their courses to prepare graduates with the technical skills to design in foreign climes. That way they’ll be in a position to exploit this opportunity.
How to win work in a foreign land
- If you are a consulting engineer, QS, project manager or architect, consider forming consortiums with complementary services to bring a wider offering and spread the risk. Also, businesses that you consider competitors in the UK can be partners when bidding for overseas tenders.
- Name drop – if you are working with internationally recognised developers, even on a subcontract basis, or have been involved in big developments in the UK, use this in your marketing. Also, play on your competitive strengths: if you’ve been in business for 30 years, make sure you make this clear.
- Don’t be afraid to approach your top clients and partners in the UK to see if they can introduce you to overseas contacts or subsidiaries.
For more information visit www.uktradeinvest.gov.uk