Decarbonisation And Environmental Growth

Decarbonisation and Growth with SETEC’s Michel Kahan

This interview with Michel Kahan, president of the setec group and member of the board of directors of Syntec-Ingénierie was published in the French magazine “La jaune et la rouge” in May 2022. It explores the importance of environmental growth while continuing the process of decarbonisation. 

A step closer to sustainability and a resilient built environment; that was the goal when Setec invested in Alpin, a regional leader in Sustainable development and Environmental Consultancy. The end goal is to make a difference and significantly impact future communities in the region and the world.

“Engineering’s role in decarbonization is crucial, as it starts at the design stage of projects.”

The major issue of our time, the acceleration of the ecological transition, requires the coordinated mobilization of all stakeholders within our society. The industry’s knowledge-based professions are committed to participating to this collective game. This is particularly true of engineering, which plays a crucial role in decarbonization, as it is involved from the design stage of projects.

Published in February 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report is particularly alarming.

It shows that, at the current rate, global temperature warming could reach 2.7°C by the end of the 21st century, with disastrous consequences for the planet and humanity. To preserve the future of the next generations, it was already known that our development model, based on the increasing use of resources considered as infinite and on fossil fuels, had to be reviewed. Today, we must take firm and immediate action towards a common goal: a significant reduction in CO2 emissions.

“The path to sobriety with the help of technology”.

A national low carbon strategy

France already has a roadmap for decarbonization: The National Low Carbon Strategy (SNBC in French) introduced by the 2015 Energy Transition for Green Growth Act. It defines an emissions reduction pathway to enable our country to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, setting the target at -33% between 2015 and 2030 and -81% between 2015 and 2050.

It also provides important guidelines on how to achieve the energy transition. However, the actual application of these guidelines is still missing.

Hence the interest in the French Economy Transformation Plan, an initiative of the Shift Project, created in the spring of 2020, in the wake of the health crisis and discussions on the “world after”. With this plan, The Shift Project wants to convince as many decision-makers as possible to plan the ecological transition by proposing pragmatic solutions to decarbonize the French economy. It seems to me that pragmatism should encourage us to favor a ‘third way’ between the degrowth advocated by some and the conviction held by others that technology will save us. A path that, far from opposing the two visions, draws on both: that of sobriety with the help of new technology.

Decarbonising, a collective approach

 As the solutions they provide by investing and innovating, companies are on the front line of ecological transition. But on a subject of public interest like this, nothing can be done without political decision-makers.

It is they who set the course, provide the direction and coordinate actions at all territorial levels. The backing of private companies is also important. Political decisions and company solutions must reflect citizen-consumers choices if they are to be accepted. This can be seen in energy issues. As an example, despite its stated determination, France is having difficulty setting up offshore wind farms, the principle of which is much debated, notably because of tensions over the use of the sea. However, the last two years have seen a real turnaround concerning nuclear power.

Of course, the issues of safety and waste management remain. Yet, in the face of the threats that climate change is causing to populations, they are no longer seen in the same way. This opens up new perspectives. Why not use nuclear energy during the night to recharge the batteries of electric vehicles, for example, or to develop the production of decarbonized hydrogen?

A knowledge-based industry, a key player in the decarbonized economy.

The low-carbon economy can only succeed in a global ecosystem where each stakeholder listens, collaborates, and develops synergies. The knowledge-based industry is gearing up to make its contribution towards this common effort. All of our sectors are mobilized, and all have a role to play in decarbonization.

Perhaps engineering has an even greater role to play than others because it is involved in the project design phase.

It, therefore, has a potentially decisive impact on the final carbon footprint of buildings, equipment, industrial processes and infrastructures for water, transport, energy, and waste treatment. 

Moreover, engineering’s technical expertise, the ability to develop new solutions for complex problems, and the ability to analyze and advise public and private decision-makers give it an important role in the choice and deployment of solutions that meet the climate objective. This is key to engineering’s positive impact, well beyond the impact of its own activities (studies, supplies, travel), in which it must also progress, like all service activities.

Engineering for sustainable construction…

Conscious of their responsibilities, engineers are committed to decarbonisation in all sectors of activity. This is illustrated by developments throughout the construction sector, which is responsible for 23% of annual greenhouse gas emissions in France. Low-carbon construction is developing in our country, with this initial question at the design stage: should we build new or renovate existing buildings? Currently, in the tertiary sector, the focus is on renovation. And when we decide to build new, it is increasingly with bio-based or renewable materials, sourced locally if possible. Wooden or mixed structures, for example, are on the increase, and new materials are appearing, such as low-carbon concrete. Sustainable construction also means focusing on the energetic efficiency of buildings. I mentioned earlier that sobriety is backed by technology. We have a perfect example of this here, as data processing is one of the levers for increasing this energy efficiency. By collecting, centralising and analysing data, it is possible to identify areas of savings and then to adapt the use of resources to improve performance. The sustainable trends observed in housing and the service sector are also reflected in infrastructure construction.

For the Nîmes-Montpellier bypass, we carried out test works with recycled concrete. And, for the Lyon-Turin rail link, the materials extracted from the excavation will be reused on site to manufacture the concrete facing of the tunnels, in a circular economy approach.

… and green mobility

 Engineering plays an active role in the decarbonisation of another priority sector for the French ecological transition since it represents more than 30% of annual emissions: transport. The solutions developed are many and varied. They range from the development of heavy duty zero-emission vehicles (such as the Coradia iLint, the first passenger train powered by a hydrogen fuel battery) to the introduction of “transport on request”, a service that offers users the possibility of travelling by reservation thanks to the coordination of available mobility solutions, with priority given to the most ecological options. Engineers are involved at all levels of projects and for all stakeholders.

They are therefore working to promote the growing use of electric cars by advising local authorities on their mobility plans, operators on the deployment of a network of recharging stations that meet the needs of motorists, and manufacturers on the development of environmentally friendly vehicles throughout their life cycle, right up to battery recycling.

Engineers who are both project managers and consultants.

 In fact, if the heart of the engineering profession is to provide solutions in terms of project management, one of the objectives of our profession is that it should also be recognised for its capacity to advise the client. Such advice is relevant to each area of ecological transition. We can also assist in developing industrial decarbonisation sectors, for example, collecting CO2, by supplying farmers with local renewable energy from methanisation and waste incineration, or by strengthening the resilience of territories and their ability to adapt to climate change. One thing is already certain: engineering has definitely taken the turn towards green growth, both internally and together with our clients. To continue in this direction, we need to have younger generations on board. We have heard their appeal for companies to mobilise around ecological issues. Today, we invite them to join us in accelerating the transformations underway: the challenge is huge, but so exciting!

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Setec is an independent group based in France and among the world leaders in multidisciplinary engineering. Passionate about their professions, they help make the most complex and daring projects possible worldwide, contributing to building a more sustainable, secure, better connected, and more agreeable world to live in.

Since its creation in 1957, the group has positioned itself on large and important projects: the Channel tunnel, the Millau Viaduct, the High-Speed railway lines, the Paris and Riyadh metro, numerous high-rise towers, the Louis Vuitton Foundation, and many, many other projects. In addition, Setec and Alpin share many synergies and a common way of thinking. Setec is an employee-owned firm committed to its people, which is something we greatly appreciate.