Engineering is key in tackling climate change

BY PROFESSOR STEVE EVANS, manufacturing policy panel chair at the Institution of Engineering and Technology

Realising climate change is a real threat is good news, right? Yet for those of us trying to mitigate such impacts, the message is stark.

Sustainability engineers are trapped in a nightmare that echoes that of many engineers through the ages, predicting impending disaster unless the global community can be shaken from its deep slumber.

At this point, people like me worry because you may be thinking… tree-hugger. You switch off and my point is lost. Please. Do read on.

The fact is we simply can’t carry on burying our heads in the sand when it comes to climate change, hoping this will all just blow away or that someone else will come along and avert catastrophe.

We have the technology, ingenuity and tenacity to sort this. But does the political will, leadership and machinery exist to inspire the global action needed and make things happen?

Climate change is closer than ever, and we need to rally resources

Up until 12 months ago, we sent half the world’s plastic waste to the Far East. No longer prepared to be the world’s dustbin, China’s ban on plastics imports sent shockwaves around the globe. Here in the UK, we watched distressing footage of marine life ensnared by ocean pollution, on the BBC series Blue Planet II. People got upset.

Looking back on 2018 some startling predictions emerged.

The publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) report, in October, warned us that we have just 12 years to act to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5C or else face the increased prospect of floods, heatwaves, droughts and other extreme conditions. That is urgent.

This year we have seen whole communities decimated by forest fires in California and Queensland, and by flooding in Kerala, south-west Japan and East Africa.

If the IPPC’s predictions prove to be right, this may well be the shape of things to come. How do we prepare our people and organise resources to even begin to cope with this?

New solutions for farming and resource efficiency are crucial

The United Nations tells us the world has barely 30 years of fertile soil remaining such is the level to which we are over-farming the land. This timescale coincides with anticipated increase in global population from today’s 7.5 billion people to 9.8 billion by 2050.

Many engineers across the world are already working on technological solutions, from more efficient fridges to new architectures for a distributed energy grid, from cars that can do over 200mpg (equivalent) to the massive scale of geo-engineering.

These technologies are a key part of the jigsaw of activities that will form a solution. Other parts include government policy and changes to consumer behaviour.

We also firmly believe that engineers have a more direct and more urgent duty to ensure that the systems they work on are as resource efficient as they can be.

Global industry generates more than 30 per cent of climate change impacts.

Resource productivity: a sustainable engineering approach 

Resource productivity means making more while using less. We need to massively accelerate the take-up of this common sense engineering approach if we’re to stand any chance of managing the climate, providing clean air and reducing pollution.

Resource productivity engages the brain and challenges our norms, but it needs to be convened.

The Nissans and Toyotas of this world have written the book on resource efficiency. They regularly achieve 8 per cent year-on-year resource productivity gains. That’s world class. Achieve even 3 to 4 per cent across all industries and we begin to start taking significant strides towards keeping our planet liveable, advancing the prospect of higher productivity and profits too. So it makes sound financial as well as environmental sense.

These are urgent and substantial challenges that engineering can either ignore or choose to be at the heart of.

BY PROFESSOR STEVE EVANS, manufacturing policy panel chair at the Institution of Engineering and Technology