Engineers have joined a growing movement to declare a climate emergency. But what does this mean in practice? According to early signatories such as Arup and Inhabit Group, it means a commitment to change the way engineers do business. It could also mean losing clients.
More than 1500 individual Australian engineers and 137 engineering companies, consultancies and organisations have signed Australian Engineers Declare, a commitment to speed up our transition to a low carbon world and to address the biodiversity emergency.
They have joined nearly 700 architectural practices across the country that have also joined the declare movement. Architects Declare Australia (ADA) convenor Caroline Pidcock says architects need to convince clients and their supply chains to reconsider the way they build, re-using buildings and materials instead of demolishing and discarding them.
Former Aurecon sustainability leader, Chris Buntine, says the focus needs to be on regenerative thinking, including an intention to learn from and collaborate with First Nations to adopt work practices that are respectful, culturally sensitive and regenerative.
Declare has both internal and external implications. Signatories need to minimise their carbon footprint and encourage clients to embrace low-carbon solutions.
That means some big name engineering firms might not sign the declaration because it would limit the kinds of projects they could work on, such as coal, oil and gas projects, according to sources in the industry who spoke to The Fifth Estate.
Inhabit chief executive officer, Tony Alvaro, says there will be a process of education for Inhabit’s clients and the company’s global workforce.
“We recognise that we may, in the short term, close off avenues to certain types of projects, but our belief is that our influence and the long term quality we are known for and deliver, will overall benefit our clients, the projects we work on and industry as a whole.”
Alvaro says Inhabit is well-positioned for the challenge, and is ready to introduce the thinking and experience behind its net zero carbon design projects and recognised standards such as Passivhaus more holistically to its clients.
“If approached correctly, Inhabit’s use of Passivhaus and net zero carbon design principles will yield measurable medium- to long-term economic benefits with reduced cost of operation and lower maintenance involvement,” he says.
Its work on Monash University’s Gilles Hall, for example, demonstrated that the initial uplift in project costs of about 10 per cent was “dwarfed by the gains in operational efficiency once the buildings are commissioned”.
“Some projects return yields inside of five years,” Alvaro says.
“We are also mindful of designing for durability and resilience, with resource efficiency, embodied energy and life cycle assessment key considerations.”
There are also gains to be had in terms of staff recruitment and retention, and an opportunity to influence the broader global momentum.
Inhabit is uniquely placed to influence how society thinks about the built environment, says Alvaro.
“Engineers Declare is a good start, with taking a well-regarded profession and focusing its efforts towards building awareness and meaningful action.”
Arup’s chair of Australasia region, Peter Chamley, says the pledge is aligned with the original founder’s vision of the firm’s purpose.
Sir Ove Arup “instilled a belief that work was only valuable when it had something higher to strive for,” Chamley says.
“By signing the declaration, we are making public our commitment to put positive environmental and social outcomes at the centre of our working practices and hope to inspire others to do the same.
“It will take time, but we are committed to aligning our aspiration with intent and action.”
He says tackling climate change “feels like a massive task” and will require collaboration from everyone who shapes the built environment.
Because building and construction account for nearly 40 per cent of global energy-related CO2 emissions, engineers are “uniquely placed” to contribute to emissions reductions through which projects they do and how they choose to do them, including investments made in research and innovation.
Chamley notes that emissions reductions as high as 44 per cent can be achieved by improving material efficiency, building utilisation, alternative materials and building reuse, according to a recent C40 Cities report, The Future of Urban Consumption in a 1.5° World.
The company is looking to align its work with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It asks its clients “how can we do something to help achieve the SDGs rather than just doing the project exactly the same way it has always been done?”.
Australian Engineers Declare coordinator and chief executive of Kindred Spirits Enterprises, Lizzie Webb, says the signatories see both a market opportunity and a market imperative.
The profession is well recognised for being essential to both infrastructure and services, and has the skills needed to contribute
to climate change adaptation and mitigation and biodiversity loss.
The World Engineering Convention held in Melbourne last month structured the entire program around the UN Sustainability Goals. Topics including resilience, carbon footprint reduction and materials footprint reductions.
Webb says the movement is global, with civil engineers in the UK leading the charge. Construction firms have also launched their own climate emergency movement.
Engineers are detailed problem solvers, Webb says and problem-solving, systems thinking and invention are exactly what’s needed to solve the climate crisis challenges engineering has helped create.
“Every individual needs to be clear on their role in the transition,” Webb says.
“This situation will lead to a whole wave of new services and new products.”
Buntine says the new generation of engineering graduates are part of the picture, with sustainability one of the most common things mentioned as an interest area.
“They want to collaborate, they want to engage… but if [positive] opportunities are not enabled, they feel disenfranchised,” he says.
“Engineering right now is not driving the story, and not leading the way. But it could. It has one of the largest roles to play in delivering solutions.”
Buntine says engineers as a profession need to realise “it’s OK” to have strong values and strong passions, rather than “waiting to be asked to solve problems”.
“This is not about the next technology. Until we shift our thinking to understand the scale of transformation we need, we won’t be equipped to bring the right solutions to the table.”