Europe’s key challenge

The EU’s climate change legislation puts in place concrete measures to reach the EU’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 20% below 1990 levels by 2020. In addition, the EU is preparing for reductions in its domestic emissions by 80% by 2050 (European Commission 2011). However, even if EU and the world succeed in limiting and then reducing greenhouse gas emissions, our planet will take time to recover from the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere and we will be faced with the impact of climate change for at least the next 50 years (European Commission 2009). Climate change therefore requires two classes of responses i) reduction of ‘net’ greenhouse gas emissions (i.e. take mitigation action) and ii) climate change adaptation to deal with the unavoidable impacts of GHGs.

The EU at the forefront of international efforts to combat climate change

The EU has long been a driving force in international negotiations on climate change and was instrumental in the development of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol. The new framework is to be finalised by 2015 and implemented from 2020. The EU is also world’s leading donor of development aid providing substantial funding to help developing countries tackle climate change.

The role of BRICS countries in addressing the climate change challenge

China is the world’s largest emitter of GHGs, India has a large CO2 footprint, being the world’s 4th largest emitter (after China, US and EU). In terms of CO2, Brazil’s emissions are low but large-scale deforestation catapults Brazil’s total GHG emissions up to Indian levels (Pöyry 2012). Because of the importance of full involvement of emerging economies in the fight against climate change and, at the same time, to maintain a strategic scientific and technological leadership, the EU is signing agreements with individual BRICS countries. For example, the EU and China have just signed a financing agreement promoting the environment, transition towards a low-carbon economy and a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in China. One of these projects is designed to assist Chinese cities in adopting energy and resource-efficient ecological solutions by sharing experiences on sustainable urbanisation.

Geotechnical and geological responses to climate change

Geotechnical engineering and engineering geology play a pivotal role in addressing the climate change challenge.Changing climate is accompanied by more intense and longer droughts and increase in frequency of heavy precipitation events. Widespread changes in extreme temperatures have also been observed over the last 50 years (IPCC 2007). It is very likely that hot extremes, heat waves, and heavy precipitation events will continue to become more frequent.

Major geotechnical infrastructure (road and railway embankments, dams, flood embankments, excavations, cut slopes) and natural geostructures such a slopes are exposed to the atmosphere and are strongly affected by climatic loading (AIPCR 2012). Adaptation measures need to be developed and implemented to enhance the climate-resilience of geo-infrastructures.

On the other hand, construction is one of the main sectors responsible for carbon emissions and accounts for 10% of the carbon footprint globally (Hertwich and Peters 2009). Geotechnical engineers will be challenged to design carbon-efficient geo-infrastructures by making use of environmentally-friendly geomaterials and reinforcements and developing new design concepts. These include for example the incorporation of heat exchangers in ‘conventional’ structural components of geothermal energy extraction.

Finally, in addition to ‘passive’ countermeasures, active measures such as carbon capture and geological storage have significant potential as mitigation techniques for climate change, both within Europe and internationally (EU 2009). Geological characterisation of storage site and identification of potential leakage pathways, particularly faults, are critical steps in the implementation of this technology.