Alexandra Meldrum

The recent COP21 agreement in Paris has been widely hailed as a landmark deal. It signals a shift in international awareness and cooperation, and in the global political will to deliver the practical actions needed to limit the effects of climate change. Now comes the challenge of change, and from an engineering point-of-view, Australia is ready to deliver.

The COP21 commitments will affect virtually every aspect of our existing policy approach – innovation, sustainability, industry, food and agriculture, energy, resources, cities, regional development, employment and education. There are few sectors of our economy and few members of our community that can rightly say they have no role to play.

True action is now going to come from a commitment to technological change and innovation, and engineering and the technology it delivers sits at the centre of the next stage of our journey.

Focusing on energy generation as one aspect of technology – arguably the most central theme in the Paris talks – it’s clear that this is still a live debate in Australia. For the near-term we have to rely on existing coal-fired generators. Like it or not, Australia simply doesn’t yet have the capacity to switch-off existing plants and rely wholly on renewables.

If policymakers are serious about putting a dent in our carbon emissions, then the long-term option of wholesale investment in renewables needs to be brought well forward and policy settings must change to reflect this. Fortunately, the recent COP21 agreement, combined with the government’s efforts to foster a culture of practical innovation in this country, suggests we’re finally seeing a situation where committed practical action is possible.

Australia faces simultaneous challenges. One of these is to ensure that electricity market policies and existing technologies are designed to ensure that power generation is as efficient as possible until we can reliably flick the switch on large-scale clean generation and storage options, options that are supported by engineering expertise and innovative technology. We can’t afford to downplay our current reliance on fossil fuels.

Another challenge is innovation. Widespread renewable energy options simply won’t be delivered overnight, and if we don’t consider how we make our existing generation assets work more efficiently in the interim, then we’re not serious about sustainability. Unfortunately, in the rush to enforce ideology from both sides of our climate debate, pragmatic considerations like this often suffer. Nonetheless, this is a problem we can easily address, and the recent maturity of our national policy debate suggests this is a problem we can overcome.

The engineering profession in Australia has long called for a greater focus on the role of technology and engineering in innovation and environmental policy. Science and research are one thing, but without engineering the practical application of these principles the community never realises any benefit. In the field of sustainability, this becomes a real problem, for it’s only practical action that’s going to allow us to meet climate targets and adapt our built environment and technology to new demands.

Entrepreneurs don’t deliver world-changing technologies without the benefit of years of trial and error, and in most cases, decades of education. The government has signalled a clear intention to create policies that support the investigation and commercialisation of new ideas. The next step is to make sure there’s a pipeline of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates to support this vision. This is still an ongoing debate, and it’s a gaping hole in our national innovation policy.

STEM education begins in primary school. Engineering is built on the foundations of science and mathematics and uses this information to solve real-world problems. Engineering both uses new technologies and also creates new technologies for the good of the community.

If we’re going to maintain our current standard of living and social, environmental and economic wellbeing then we’ll need to do things differently and we’ll need to innovate – at its most fundamental, sustainability requires innovation. To be truly sustainable we’ll need to do more with less and we’ll undoubtedly need an educated workforce to deliver this reality. We’ll need more smart people and we’ll need to give them the skills to drive sustainable technological change.

So often workforce development and sustainability are topics viewed in isolation. Indeed, the two matters are often pursued by radically different ends of the political spectrum. As a member of the engineering profession tasked with developing new technologies and processes to solve our environmental and sustainability challenges, I can say from experience that the two issues are inextricably linked.

We need to embrace the reality that education can deliver improvements to our standard-of-living (and yes, wealth) that need not come at a cost to our environment and need not impose externalities on future generations. This is the benefit that engineering provides. The complicating factor is that engineering requires education, and education requires investment backed by clear policy action.

There’s no doubt that Australia gains a sustainable competitive advantage from our people. We have a history of producing world-class scientists and engineers, and we have a clear responsibility to grow this advantage for the good of the community and our future. Is education the key to innovation and sustainability? In part, but it’s one step among many.

To survive in this changing world we need solutions. We need to have the most capable people we can get, and employ them wisely to deliver these long-term sustainable solutions. Is it time to create a sustainability policy with education and our workforce at its centre? Is it time to make sustainability the central factor in innovation policy? The answer to both questions is a resounding “yes!”.

Our people are our advantage, and it’s time to build this advantage and put Australia back in its rightful position as a thought leader, not a global laggard.

Alexandra Meldrum is a board member of peak professional body Engineers Australia, a chartered engineer, lecturer and consultant. She provides strategic advice to business and other organisations on sustainable change management and performance improvement.

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