Date: November 2009
Publication: Environmental Science and Engineering, 42-43
Author: George Zukovs, President & Richard Rush, Co-founder and Senior Consultant

Under a bright blue sky on October 24, 2009, thousands of people gathered on the steps of the opera house in Sydney, Australia, to kick off a worldwide climate change day of action.

Over 5,000 events in more than 180 countries took place that day, including right here in Canada, where hundreds of people gathered on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, and across the country to demand action on climate change.

The events were coordinated by 350.org, an international group dedicated to building a movement to unite the world around solutions to the climate crisis. The focus of the group is on the number 350 parts per million, which is considered to be the safe upper limit level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Right now it’s at 387 ppm and rising.

In 2012, the Kyoto Protocol expires, and world leaders are meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, this December to renew climate change commitments. Instead of protesting government inaction, 350.org is offering world leaders a specific goal, one that the event organizers believe is needed in order to sustain humanity.

Sustainability and technology are familiar issues to the environmental consulting engineering profession. And, as evidenced by a recent internal review undertaken by XCG Consultants Limited, sustainability and technology are expected to play an increasingly important role, not only in terms of the assignments that consulting engineering firms undertake, but also in terms of company business practices.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when environmental awareness was gaining a foothold in the collective social consciousness, acid rain, phosphate levels in lakes, and the impact of polychlorinated biphenyls and other toxic chemicals on human health and the environment were some of the issues facing consulting engineers. The emphasis tended to be short-term and focused on clean-up, rather than deterrence. Wastewater effluent polishing using tertiary treatment was still exotic. State of the art communication technology was a fax machine.

Later, in the 1990s, pollution prevention became a prominent theme. Environmental consulting engineers spent a lot of energy, literally, rehabilitating brownfields to allow redevelopment to occur. Master planning became a mainstream approach to municipal servicing, and recent master plans, such as the water and wastewater master plan for York Region, have emphasized sustainability as a guiding principle.

The past twenty years have seen increasing reliance on computer models to predict outcomes, and greater reliance on the Internet, not just as an instant source of information, but also as a mechanism for active communication.

Now, as environmental consulting moves further into the 21st century, sustainability and sustainable practices are becoming leading areas of practice.

The signing of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol led to the development of carbon dioxide emissions trading as one way for governments to encourage reductions. To date, most of the carbon emission trading activity has taken place in Europe. The current lack of a trading market in Canada means only one thing – it’s just a matter of time. The opportunities for environmental consulting companies are many: assisting governments to develop efficient and effective trading schemes; assisting trading partners to achieve emissions targets; and, participating in market development, brokering, auditing and monitoring.

Furthermore, future emissions trading schemes won’t be restricted to air or to carbon dioxide. Water quality trading is already established in the United States, and is making its way north. Ontario’s Lake Simcoe Protection Plan, released in June this year, calls for the Ministry of Environment to examine the feasibility of water quality trading as one means of reducing phosphorus loadings within the Lake Simcoe watershed. The article by Paul O’Callaghan in the September 2009 issue of Environmental Science and Engineering Magazine could easily have been renamed from “phosphorus may become a sustainability issue” to “phosphorus is becoming a sustainability issue”.

Sustainability through carbon neutrality is another area of opportunity for consulting engineering companies, and not just as a service to clients. As part of XCG’s strategic review, the company examined the impact of its own practices in terms of carbon output. In 2008, which was chosen as the baseline year, XCG generated just over 220 tonnes of greenhouse gases, made up of business travel (106.8 T), electricity consumption (64 T), heating (39T), and employee-owned vehicles (12T).

The company now has a program underway to reduce carbon output in each of its five offices. Through a combination of changes in work and purchasing practices, energy efficient retrofits, increased use of technology to reduce business travel, favouring the use of hybrid vehicles, and investing in renewable energy, XCG has committed to be carbon neutral by 2019.

By demonstrating leadership in its own internal operations, XCG will have the credibility and experience to assist clients to meet their sustainability goals. The company envisions a time when XCG-made carbon credits are available to clients, suppliers, or even competitors.

Canadian consulting engineers will also soon face changes in the way proposals and tenders are evaluated, once sustainability criteria are incorporated into procurement processes. According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, sustainable procurement is an “acquisition process whereby organizations meet their requirements for goods, services, works and utilities in a way that achieves value for money on a “whole of life” basis in terms of generating benefits not only to the organization, but also to society and the economy, whilst minimizing its impact on the environment.”

The reference to life cycle analysis is a welcome one, and has already been adopted in Australia, where the Australian Capital Territory has directed government departments to use whole of life costing methodologies, rather than a simple analysis of the initial purchase price, when evaluating bids.

Sustainable procurement is already a reality in other sectors, notably the hospitality sector, which has adopted the Green Key Eco-Rating Program to recognize hotels, motels, and resorts that are committed to sustainable practices. “Green meetings” are becoming more prevalent, as event planners seek to minimize the environmental impacts of their meetings. As an example, the recent Engineers Canada Board of Directors meeting in Ottawa was virtually paperless.

The next logical step is virtual meetings, which is what the Water Environment Federation Research Foundation is now offering. Partly in response to the economic downturn and its impact on company travel budgets, the WERF is now holding an increasing number of its events on-line. The 5th Annual WERF Research Forum takes webinars up a notch, by providing an exhibition hall, networking lounge, and resource center, in addition to the line-up of presentations.

aperless and virtual meetings demonstrate how technology can enhance sustainable practice. Teleconferences are standard fare these days, as are video links. Platforms such as Skype™ and Google™ Talk make communication as simple and easy as an Internet connection. For the consulting engineering profession, these services expand the repertoire of tools that can be used for client liaison, for communication with remote sites, and for public consultation. The Sony™ Digital Reader Book and Amazon™ Kindle are wireless reading devices that may one day be used for engineering feasibility reports.

In the future, environmental consulting engineering work will rely less on the place of business and more on the optimization of time and appropriate tools to deliver results. Sustainability and technology will continue to evolve and the consulting engineering profession can actively choose whether to be driven or be the drivers.

One thing that is also sure to increase in the future is competition, as more companies go “green”. Future success will increasingly rely on John Elkington’s Triple Bottom Line of people, planet and profits, in that order. You can bet your carbon credit on it.