The Role of Engineers in Combating Climate Change
Dr Khalil Khan
21 September 2020
Project METaL offers specialised work based learning courses to industry, and in these courses we emphasise sustainability, environment and best practices. During my recent work on the course titled ‘Environment Impact and Sustainability’, I came across two articles published online titled ‘Engineers have a Role to Play in Minimizing Climate Change’ and ‘The Role of Engineering in Combating Climate Change’. Below I summarise some of the key points within these articles.
Engineering has defined the last two centuries as we have moved from industrial revolutions to information revolutions and most recently the cyber revolution. To understand the role of engineering during a period of climate change, engineers should be asking themselves how engineering impacts climate change, and if possible how can engineering combat climate change? Many believe that engineering will be key to delivering a sustainable future.
Engineers play an integral role in shaping our interaction with the world. The decisions we make on a day-to-day basis through our work can have a range of environmental, social and economic impacts. The work of engineers influences, both positively and negatively, our human contribution to climate change. Climate change does not just present environmental risks; it is also a risk to global political stability, infrastructure and food security. Climate change is one of humanity’s biggest challenges and its effects are already being felt around the world. It is imperative that the engineering profession commits to playing its part in reducing its impacts. For society to develop solutions that minimise climate change, engineers must play a fundamental and active role. For young engineers, this is an issue particularly close to their heart. The rate of change indicates bleak implications and consequences during our lifetime, and we do not want to be forced to live in a world with no fresh water, breaking down of the natural wonders of the world and species becoming extinct one after another. Instead, we want to be able to continue to enjoy the fruits of nature and live in a world of abundance not just for now, but for all our lifetime and for all future generations. This is a fantastic time to be an engineer to provide numerous opportunities to drive the change we want to see.
There are many opportunities for engineers to work directly in the field of sustainability and contribute to climate change solutions. Many engineers develop and manufacture new technologies that reduce our environmental footprint such as solar panels and hydrogen fuel cells. Environmental engineers, meanwhile, make their contribution to sustainability through the use of engineering principles that reduce the impact of major industrial activities. Every facet of the engineering sector needs to embrace at least a net zero carbon impact on the world in terms of construction, chemicals, etc., such that there are no negative side-effects to every process. This means not just considering things at point of use but understanding the entire life cycle. The importance to understand that short term solutions with potential future side effects are not good enough must be emphasised. We also need to think big. Should we only be looking to reduce the impact on climate change or can engineering be the solution to completely reverse it? Negative emissions technology (NET) will play a big part towards achieving climate targets by leading to a negative balance of carbon in the atmosphere.
The recent legislation passed in government which committed to net zero UK carbon emissions by 2050 is a giant milestone encouraging innovations in technology to achieve this target. A coordinated effort will be imperative in order to make this happen as soon as possible.
It is also important to increase interest and uptake of STEM subjects in schools and universities to encourage more young engineers to work on low carbon technologies. Renewable energy does not currently pay the same high wages as other fossil fuel industries, yet the engineers working on renewable energy are potentially doing one of the most important jobs in the world. We need to ensure that these engineers are rewarded and that the renewable sector is marketed positively, so that the best and brightest engineers work together to combat climate change.
Engineers have always pushed boundaries, to find the limits of what is possible and make it happen. Now more than ever it is important that engineers need to work together towards a climate change resolve for a better tomorrow.
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