In today’s world, where sustainable development and environmental considerations are paramount, the roles of civil engineers and environmental engineers have become increasingly significant. While both professions play critical roles in shaping our built environment, they possess distinct skill sets and focus areas. But what is the difference between civil engineers and environmental engineers? Understanding the distinction between these two professions is crucial when embarking on projects that require expertise in either field. A shared feature is that all engineers must perform calculations and design to meet the needs of a specific situation.

Civil Engineer:

Civil engineering is a broad discipline that deals with the design, construction, and maintenance of infrastructure projects. Civil engineers are responsible for shaping the physical environment, including buildings, roads, bridges, dams, and other large-scale structures. Their primary objective is to ensure the functionality, safety, and durability of these projects.

Key Responsibilities:

  1. Structural Design and Analysis: Civil engineers design structures capable of withstanding various loads, such as gravity, wind, and earthquakes, to ensure their stability and safety.
  2. Site Assessment and Land Development: They evaluate the feasibility and suitability of land for construction, considering factors like soil conditions, topography, and drainage.
  3. Transportation Engineering: Civil engineers plan and design transportation systems, including roads, highways, airports, and railways, to facilitate efficient movement of people and goods.
  4. Construction Management: They oversee construction projects, manage budgets, ensure adherence to building codes and regulations, and supervise construction teams.

When to Engage a Civil Engineer:

  • Designing and constructing buildings, bridges, roads, and other infrastructure projects.
  • Evaluating and improving the structural integrity and safety of existing structures.
  • Planning and managing large-scale construction projects.
  • Assessing the feasibility and environmental impact of land development projects.

Environmental Engineer:

There are several applications for environmental engineers, depending on if you work for industry, environmental agencies, municipalities, consulting, green building design (pavements, green roofs), water reclamation, stormwater management, or coastal/riparian work:

  • Industry would focus on chemical processes, – process water treatment, air emissions, and emission reductions, water and air testing equipment, hazardous and solid waste management, waste reduction and disposal, cross-connections of liquid pipelines, groundwater issues, tank integrity and containment design, valves, pumps, blowers, and appurtenances of pipelines, etc.
  • Agencies can focus on solid/hazardous waste disposal, pollution prevention, and reduction, risk assessments, chemical processes, area-wide air emissions, plant fence line emissions and discharges, water quality, and riparian and estuary impacts.
  • Municipalities have water treatment and distribution, stormwater and flood management and design, landfill design and operation, wastewater treatment, and conveyance, hazardous and solid waste management, Brownfields, and green building designs, etc.

The primary goal of all environmental engineers is to measure and reduce the impact of human-made or environmental forces on human health and the environment. Environmental engineers work to minimize the negative impact of human activities on ecosystems and develop solutions to address environmental challenges, such as pollution, waste management, and resource conservation. Environmental engineering grew out of water and sanitary wastewater treatment design (which was previously Civil Engineering) but has had to encompass many of the other fields of engineering in the five decades since the Clean Water Act was passed in the 1970s due to the exponential growth of chemical and biological substances that impact the environment. The profession followed the development of new and expanded laws and regulations such as RCRA and CERCLA (waste and Community Right-To-Know) in the 1980s, Stormwater, Pollution Reduction, Oil and Air Pollution in the 1990s, and green building, flood/storm, water management and environmental justice in the 2000s.

Key Responsibilities:

  1. Environmental Impact Assessment: Environmental engineers evaluate the potential environmental consequences of proposed projects and recommend measures to mitigate negative impacts.
  2. Water and Wastewater Management: They design systems for water supply, treatment, and distribution, as well as wastewater collection and treatment, to ensure safe disposal and conservation of water resources.
  3. Pollution Control and Remediation: Environmental engineers develop strategies to minimize air, water, and soil pollution, and implement remediation techniques to restore contaminated sites.
  4. Sustainability and Renewable Energy: They explore sustainable practices and technologies, such as renewable energy systems, waste-to-energy conversion, and green building design, to reduce environmental impact.

When to Engage an Environmental Engineer:

  • Conducting environmental impact assessments for proposed projects.
  • Developing strategies for managing and treating water and wastewater.
  • Implementing pollution control measures and remediating contaminated sites.
  • Incorporating sustainable practices and renewable energy solutions into projects.

Let’s compare scenarios:

  1. Environmental Impact Assessments:

Environmental Engineer: An environmental engineer conducts comprehensive assessments to evaluate the potential environmental impacts of a project. They consider factors like air and water pollution, habitat disruption, and resource depletion. They provide recommendations for mitigating these impacts and ensuring sustainable development.

Civil Engineer: While civil engineers may consider some environmental factors, their primary focus during an impact assessment is on the structural and functional aspects of a project. They evaluate load-bearing capacity, design stability, and construction feasibility, ensuring the project meets safety standards and regulatory requirements.

  1. Waste Management and Pollution Control:

Environmental Engineer: Environmental engineers specialize in developing waste management systems and pollution control strategies. They address issues like solid waste disposal, wastewater treatment, air pollution, and hazardous material management. Their expertise ensures compliance with environmental regulations and minimizes harm to ecosystems and human health.

Civil Engineer: While civil engineers may incorporate elements of waste management and pollution control into their designs, their primary role is focused on the structural aspects of infrastructure. They ensure proper drainage systems, design water treatment facilities, and incorporate sustainable construction materials and practices.

  1. Water Resource Management:

Environmental Engineer: Environmental engineers play a key role in managing water resources sustainably. They develop strategies for water supply, treatment, and distribution, as well as stormwater management. They address challenges related to water quality, scarcity, and conservation.

Civil Engineer: Civil engineers incorporate water resource management considerations into their designs. They plan and design water supply systems, wastewater treatment facilities, and stormwater drainage systems. Their focus is on the structural and hydraulic aspects of these systems to ensure efficient functionality.

  1. Infrastructure Design and Construction:

Environmental Engineer: While not typically involved in the direct design and construction of infrastructure, environmental engineers provide input and recommendations to minimize environmental impacts during the project’s life cycle. They may assess the project’s sustainability, recommend eco-friendly materials, and ensure compliance with environmental regulations.

Civil Engineer: Civil engineers are responsible for designing and constructing infrastructure projects. They focus on structural integrity, safety, and functionality. They analyze load-bearing capacity, materials, and engineering principles to ensure the successful completion of projects like buildings, roads, bridges, and dams.


Much of what Environmental Engineers do is based on Civil Engineering. But Environmental Engineers need to have chemical, biological, geotechnical, and mechanical engineering skills as well.  There is less of the structural component that Civil Engineers embark on (building, road, and bridge designs), but the Environmental Engineer must still be able to design concrete basins, slabs, pipelines, conveyances, inlets, outlets, pavements, ditches, and impoundments. Their work goes beyond conventional boundaries, integrating intricate chemical and biological engineering techniques to measure and reduce waste, water, and air contaminants. Geotechnical expertise is indispensable for addressing subsurface construction activities and resolving groundwater issues, ensuring sustainable and resilient projects. Furthermore, Environmental Engineers leverage their mechanical skills to master fluid movement and pressures, perform riparian and stormwater calculations, and devise innovative designs for pipelines, tanks, and equipment.

In addition to their technical prowess, all Engineers must also be well-versed in legal matters, skillfully navigating regulations to ensure the utmost compliance and environmental stewardship in their projects.

While civil engineers and environmental engineers share a common goal of improving our surroundings, their areas of expertise and focus differ significantly. Civil engineers primarily deal with the design, construction, and maintenance of physical infrastructure, ensuring safety and functionality. On the other hand, environmental engineers address environmental challenges, aiming to minimize negative impacts, conserve resources, and promote sustainable practices. Remember, the field of engineering is so broad that many engineers specialize in one medium (air, water, waste) or type of engineering such as landfills or green building design.

At Leaaf Environmental, we employ Environmental Engineers that focus on compliance and permitting. If you’d like to know more about what we do or how our engineers can help, please don’t hesitate to reach out at