By Sara Thiam

Few in Scotland would fail to recognise the Forth Bridge, our landmark piece of civil infrastructure and visual shorthand for Scotland’s rich heritage of engineering and innovation.

The infrastructure which underpins our daily lives is much less visible to us. How we bring clean water and heat to our homes, dispose of waste, travel to school or work, or communicate with our friends and family is determined by the infrastructure investment decisions we make. It’s only when things go wrong, when our homes are flooded or the route we take to work is closed by poor weather that the importance of our sewers, our roads and railways, gas networks or internet access is brought home to us.

The decisions we make now will dictate how we travel, heat our homes and power our industries generations from now. With climate change a defining challenge of our times, we must call on the same leadership and ingenuity shown by our forebears to lay the foundations for Scotland’s transition to a thriving, low carbon nation. Missing the opportunity this transition presents risks locking us into high carbon infrastructure that will leave a legacy of buildings, transport networks and energy generation that either traps Scotland on an unsustainable path or commits us to an expensive bill for their replacement.

That’s why, as we spend billions of pounds over the coming decades to upgrade our infrastructure, it’s essential we invest wisely in future infrastructure that improves our economy, environment and quality of life for the people of Scotland in the 21st century and beyond.

Investing in exciting new low carbon infrastructure projects has the potential to deliver huge benefits in addition to cutting our climate emissions. Spend on walking, cycling and public transport networks can reduce ill-health and deaths from air pollution and obesity. Building energy efficient housing stock and district heating investment creates warmer homes and reduces fuel poverty as well as creating new jobs in the renewables sector.

I am proud to chair a new Low Carbon Infrastructure Taskforce that showcases the potential of low carbon infrastructure to improve lives. We’re a collection of both usual and unusual suspects. Aside from my own institution whose royal charter binds us to act in the public interest (the Institution of Civil Engineers) the taskforce includes representatives of law firm Pinsent Masons, the Green Investment Bank, the Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI), environment charity WWF Scotland, development NGO Oxfam, and other organisations from the public and private sectors and academia.

We are setting out on an ambitious journey to find transformational low carbon projects that will shape Scotland’s future economy, environment and society, engaging with experts and the public about the kind of infrastructure they would like to see built. The kind of projects we’ll be looking at include ideas to upgrade our railways, build new heat networks in our major cities, or invest in insulating our buildings to make them fit for the future. We will be asking the public which idea they would most like to become a reality.

According to the New Climate Economy Report, prepared by a renowned group of international economists, more than 70 per cent of infrastructure spend must be allocated to low carbon projects just to reach the required global average to prevent dangerous climate change. With ambitious climate change targets and a developed economy, Scotland clearly needs to exceed this amount. However, independent analysis for the taskforce by Green Alliance shows that Scotland’s balance of spend on low carbon infrastructure is well below the required global average.

Public investment has an important role to play in kick starting low carbon infrastructure particularly in the development stages of innovative technologies, grids and networks which can be a challenging for the private sector. Government support has the potential to reduce investment risk for private sector investors.

As Director of ICE in Scotland, the prospect of inspiring a new generation of engineers to build on the legacy of Telford, Arrol, Stevenson and Rennie is the most personally exciting dimensions of this low carbon journey. Young engineers have the opportunity to get involved in 21st Century engineering projects that will stand the test of time, as the Forth Bridge has done and build a better world.

Sara Thiam is chairwoman of the Low Carbon Infrastructure Taskforce and

director of the Institution of Civil Engineers.