Engineering sustainability: finding the right tools to meet crucial UN goals

With the signing of the declaration to advance the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the 2019 World Engineers Convention, engineers now have a clear mandate about their role in helping communities live more sustainably.
News Image
Image of a sustainable building with a vertical garden

With the signing of the declaration to advance the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the 2019 World Engineers Convention, engineers now have a clear mandate about their role in helping communities live more sustainably.

The 17 SDGs were adopted by all UN Member States in 2015 as part of an urgent call for action by all countries - developed and developing - in a global partnership.

The SDGs address many global challenges including poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace and justice.

Goals where engineering skills will be in demand include clean water and sanitation for all (Goal 6), availability of sustainable energy sources (Goal 7), creating strong and resilient infrastructure (Goal 9) and liveable cities (Goal 11).

But other goals, such as responsible consumption and production (Goal 12) or quality education (Goal 4) will also rely on engineering skills even if this is not immediately obvious.

With such a broad scope, the engineering community will be challenged as we attempt to reach milestones and eradicate some of the world’s most difficult problems.

But the bigger question remains: how do engineers help the world reach these goals?

Equally important is, how do engineers across disciplines, industries and geographies coordinate and apply appropriate practices and ethics to ensure they are living up to these goals?


Solutions in practical resources

Engineers Australia’s Colleges, Technical Societies and Groups have equipped engineers with tools and advice for all areas of the profession by providing technical and practice advice, mentorships and opportunities for upskilling.

Many of these resources are aimed at giving engineers from multiple disciplines practical advice and solutions to solving issues around sustainability.

Not only has sustainability been a focus for engineers but it is enshrined in Engineers Australia’s Code of Ethics which states that members should promote sustainability.

The Code of Ethics asks engineers to “engage responsibly with the community and other stakeholders”, “practise engineering to foster the health, safety and wellbeing of the community and the environment” and “balance the needs of the present with the needs of future generations”.

National Manager of Engineer Australia’s Learned Society, Sheryl Harrington says with sustainability as a core ethic of being a member of Engineers Australia, it was important they have the tools to put this into action.

“It was clear very early on that something was needed to help engineers live up to the standards that we had created,” says Ms Harrington.

“Engineers Australia Congress made it imperative that sustainability was to become a focus for engineers quite a few years ago.

“Members were aware that sustainability is part of our code of ethics, but many need practical guides. There was a lot of consultation for a practical guide to implement sustainability that aligned with the Code of Ethics.”

To further help engineers understand their obligations and continue to promote sustainability, the Environmental College, Sustainable Engineering Technical Society, and staff worked together to create the ‘Implementing Sustainability: Principles and Practice’ guide.

The guide helps engineers understand the relationship between environmental, social and economic conditions and recognise that communities live in and are totally dependent on the environment.


Designing the right guide

The guide collates a range of resources including practical notes on eco-design, green-star ratings, energy and resources, stewardship, and planning.

Key authors of parts A and B of the guide included David Rice, a known advocate for sustainability in engineering, sustainability engineer Graham Davies, former president of Engineers Australia WA Division Chris Fitzhardinge, and environmental/systems engineer Lorie Jones.

Parts A and B were also workshopped by more than 100 EA members from a wide range of disciplines, along with past EA Presidents David Hood, Marlene Kanga and David Cruickshanks-Boyd. Engineers Australia’s College Chairs also reviewed the draft Guide and their feedback was included.

Ms Harrington says the guide attempts to provide guidance on many issues that members face every day.

“A lot of employers have their own sustainability guidelines, but none from a whole-of-engineering perspective,” she says.

“We wanted a resource that was bound by ethical decision making to assist members by providing a guide that members could use as a reference point.”

While the guide is only two years old, Engineers Australia Colleges are now assisting in building on the guide to help improve the resources available for the broader membership.

“As the guide has a general focus, the Environmental College and the Sustainable Engineering Technical Society are now working on developing training specific to each field of engineering. They are initially working with the Electrical College Board to develop training specific for electrical engineers and, following this, will develop training for each field of engineering. If engineers know the context in which to be sustainable, it will make their jobs a lot easier.” says Ms Harrington.

You can read about the guide on the Engineers Australia Library website.