| 02 February 2020

Climate change: the technical sector’s role and responsibility

Dr Bronwyn Evans, Engineers Australia CEO

Engineers Australia is the profession’s peak body, with around 100,000 individual members. Our purpose, as per our Royal Charter, is to advance the science and practice of engineering for the benefit of the community.

That last little bit – the benefit of the community – is key when it comes to climate change.

Engineers have a vital role to play in increasing renewable energy and developing more sustainable transport, reducing the energy needed to create building products and electronics, increasing the durability of our manufactured goods and adapting to our changing climate.

Engineers get into engineering to make a difference to their communities – and they can be leaders in making the changes we need.

As data-driven, scientifically literate professional problem solvers whose work impacts almost every area of modern life, it is our duty and our desire to be “part of the solution”. 

Importantly, the community trusts engineers.

Typically, engineers are highly aware of deadlines, design standards, budgets and safety. Sustainability is in the mix, but we need to move it higher up the list of priorities to be firmly top of mind. We need to innovate and to change the way we do things in response to a changing world.

We need to consider alternatives that can meet a goal. For example, do we need this new power plant? Can we instead use demand management, paying big users to suspend operations when supply is short? Do we need a new roundabout, or could the traffic problem by solved by changing the sequencing on traffic lights?

Unfortunately, politicians like to cut the ribbon on shiny, new structures, which means sometimes alternatives are not truly considered.

Engineers Australia has a Climate Policy and a Sustainability Policy and our members are also bound by a Code of Ethics which requires them to promote sustainability by: 

  • Engaging responsibly with the community and other stakeholders
  • Practising engineering to foster the health, safety and wellbeing of the community and the environment and
  • Balancing the needs of the present with the needs of future generations. 

That Code of Ethics also applies to non-members who are part of the National Engineering Register.

One of the challenges is that in many parts of Australia there is no requirement for engineers to be registered, and thus no need for them to comply with any Code of Ethics.

As Elizabeth Farrelly of the Sydney Morning Herald commented “unregulated engineering makes sense like unregulated brain surgery”!

We are advocating for laws requiring registration of engineers as is currently the case in Queensland, and on the way in Victoria.

Policies are one thing, but implementing them is another. For this reason, we have produced a detailed guide “Implementing Sustainability: Principles and Practice” that is available to members free of charge. It is currently being updated.

This is a very practical tool linking to other resources that recognises the reality that most, if not all, engineering activities do require resources – energy, land, water, materials – and do have impacts. Sometimes remediation, recycling or offsetting is the “least bad” choice. Sometimes it is the role of the engineer to educate the client on sustainability and the options available to them.

One of the things that peak bodies can offer is an opportunity for people to come together and, as a group, achieve more than they could alone – our volunteers in the Sustainable 

Engineering Society and  our Environmental College work to advance the cause, upskill our members through professional development and inform our advocacy.

If members want to become Chartered engineers, one of the competencies they have to demonstrate is that they develop solutions that are both safe and sustainable.

Our members are active in innovating climate solutions, and sustainability is one of the criteria we evaluate when recognising engineers and engineering projects in our awards. If we take a few examples from last year…

Our most recent 30 Most Innovative Engineers list included members like:

  • Steve Wilson, from Aurecon, and his work on the world’s largest lithium-ion battery system in Australia, enabling wind power to be stored and building confidence in the ability of such large storage schemes to be successfully integrated into the electricity markets.
  • Julian O’Shea, whose zero emission solar-electric tuktuk travels at 50 kilometres an hour, has already been across Australia and is now attempting to make it round the world.
  • Amelia Milne from Aurecon, recognised as one of Australia’s most innovative engineers for her work designing the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music to be zero carbon ready – with no use of gas for heating and cooling, and with solar panels.

We also saw our member – and Australia’s Chief Scientist – Dr Alan Finkel, deliver Australia’s hydrogen strategy to COAG, creating a pathway to commercial use of hydrogen created with clean energy being made in Australia for industry, transport, heating and export. Hydrogen, when burned, creates water.

Our Young Engineer of the Year, an environmental engineer, is working to reduce the impact of the electricity network on the iconic Tasmanian Wedge-Tailed Eagle.

Sustainability was a strong theme throughout the World Engineers Convention, which we co-hosted in Melbourne late last year. We are building on that via a roundtable we will hold later this month, which will bring together leaders from engineering and non-engineering backgrounds.

If we work together, we can leave a powerful legacy that we can be proud of, as a profession, and as people.