In late 2020, Jamie Shelton spoke with Dr Claire Scobie about how and why Northrop Consulting Engineers became a signatory organisation of Engineers Declare, where Northrop is on its journey as a climate-active organisation, and the transformation needed to respond to the climate emergency.

Dr Claire Scobie: Why did Northrop decide to become a signatory organisation for Engineers Declare?

Jamie Shelton: As an organisation, we believe in the notion of realising potential: the potential of our employees, our projects, our clients and their businesses, and also our communities. Climate and biodiversity are critically important to help our community, and our world, realise their potential, so it was a natural thing for us to do. But for us, as a business, to make a genuine difference, we need to be part of a scaled-up effort, which is why we felt it was important to sign up to Engineers Declare.

It all started with a couple of people within Northrop who were passionate about the need for us to take a stand on these issues. They engaged us at senior management level and presented us with areas we could start to act on.

One of them, of course, was to sign up to Engineers Declare. Another was to move our default superannuation fund to a sustainable industry fund, which we have now done. From there, we are looking at ways to help our clients incorporate sustainability into their projects, transitioning the economy towards a low carbon future.

It’s got to make an impact on how we work and how we advise our clients. Ultimately, it needs to make a real difference in the designs and specifications that we produce.

Dr Claire Scobie: What challenges have you encountered rolling out these initiatives?

Jamie Shelton: The biggest challenge is connecting the purpose and our core business for our clients. Clients don’t come to us because they want to know our opinion about something; they come to us for something very tangible – our engineering knowledge.

The product of that is the designs and specifications that we produce.

However, for us to fulfil the declaration, it has to manifest itself in how we work on our projects with our clients. It’s not good enough for us just to put out ideas. It can’t just be conceptual. We need to have solutions, and we need to come from a very sound technical position on that. We need to back that up with business outcomes in a way that supports our reputation as technical experts.

It’s fine to say, “you should use solar panels instead of electric heating, and it’d produce a significant amount of savings for your business,” or “you should use green concrete,” but we need to be confident that we have the necessary technical understanding and technical expertise to bring these solutions to our clients in a meaningful way. It requires a depth of understanding and knowledge because if we get that wrong, we damage Northrop’s reputation, and we’re not providing any value to our clients.

Dr Claire Scobie: How have you gone about introducing this into the organisation? How much progress have you made?

Jamie Shelton: At the moment, we’re very much engaged in winning hearts and minds. We created a task force to develop communications that educated people across the business, and we share initiatives and the things that we’re doing to bring this to life. We want people to understand why we’re doing this, how they can get involved and how they can make a difference. The stories we tell can really help us capture those hearts and minds.

At the same time, we’re tackling the technical side and how we’re approaching this tactically. We’d like to be at a point where we can say, for example, we know everything we need to know about green concrete, and we can confidently start recommending it to clients on a multitude of projects.

Ultimately, it’s about all of our engineers having a deep understanding of what, in that example, green concrete is and how they can use it on their projects. We need to move away from the decades-old industry notion of the ‘sustainability people’ doing the sustainability work. All our engineers are now sustainability engineers.

Dr Claire Scobie: What else do you need to consider from a client’s perspective. After all, ‘doing the right thing’ will only go so far, won’t it?

Jamie Shelton: Absolutely, and the commercial aspect is an area we’re putting a lot of focus on because it’s got to make sense from that perspective, too. We’re looking at the benefits it brings to a client and the project as a whole – its ability to be resilient in the face of future climate change, the ongoing costs of running the asset, the extent to which it can withstand the environmental degradation and how the asset can be adapted to the changing workplace, for example.

By approaching it that way, we can speak to our clients about all of this from a commercial perspective, too, regardless of whether or not the client wants to make a difference to climate change.

Dr Claire Scobie: What benefits do you think Northrop will gain from being involved in Engineers Declare and having this focus on climate change?

Jamie Shelton: It will help our people – who are all technically minded, very confident people in their fields – get a deeper understanding of what we’re talking about and why we’re talking about it. The technologies necessary to help respond to the climate and biodiversity crisis exist, and we need to give the engineering community knowledge that they’re here and the confidence that they work. They’re not pie in the sky concepts.

Longer-term, of course, it starts with university education, but right now, we need to get senior engineers equipped with the technologies and the knowledge because it’s usually the senior engineers that make significant choices early on in projects, and those choices set the direction. Regardless of how well informed or passionate a younger engineer might be, it’s difficult to turn a project around at a later point in time.

Dr Claire Scobie: Outside of the immediate engineering space, what’s needed to respond effectively to the climate emergency?

Jamie Shelton: There needs to be government support for all the technologies that exist now. Some tough decisions need to be made on the energy policy within Australia.

We’ve spent billions of dollars on the development of gas fields, and we’re saying that the electrical distribution networks are not up to the task of distributing solar technology, for example.

We need some real government structural change around those distribution networks, as well as on the recycling and reuse of waste, which is still a mess in this country.

The government’s roadmap is not bold enough. The strength of the lobbyists in the energy industry is enormous, and for the government to move in a different direction is difficult for them. I think there’s too much emphasis on gas, too – there are some real question marks around gas as an energy source, given the amount of methane it creates – in terms of environmental impact, it’s much worse than the Co2.

Dr Claire Scobie: How would you describe where your organisation is currently on the journey?

Jamie Shelton: Climate active, with an intention to be ambitious!

Jamie Shelton is CEO of Northrop Consulting Engineers.

This interview was conducted by Dr Claire Scobie, Director of Wordstruck, a signatory organisation to Australian Engineers Declare.

Australian Engineers Declare a Climate and Biodiversity Emergency