Photo by Ahsan S. on Unsplash

In the wake of entire countries such as the UK and professional bodies such as the Institute of Architects declaring a climate emergency, engineers are considering the same move.

Australia’s peak industry association for engineers, Engineers Australia, is considering whether it supports the concept of Climate Emergency, and how this would impact on members’ professional and ethical obligations.

It’s a tricky topic for engineers, as many make their living consulting for fossil fuel projects. While fossil fuels might pay the bills, working on a project like Adani can result in serious reputational blow-back, as GHD recently discovered.

The company made headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent weeks over its contribution to the design and planning for the Galilee Basin coal project with activists targeting GHD offices and communications channels calling for it to scrap the gig.

  • UPDATE 21 August 2019: On Wednesday the issue became more complex and political when Minister for Industry and Innovation Matt Canavan dished out a hammering to Aurecon for pulling out of the Adani coal mine.

GHD responded to a swathe of media requests for comment, including from The Fifth Estate, with a statement published late last week on its website.

“Working to help a world transition to a sustainable future while also assisting fossil fuel and greenhouse gas emitting industries in all areas of sustainable development is not a conflict for GHD,” the statement said.

“As a professional services company, we do not create policy or source business on a policy-driven agenda. We apply scientific and engineering knowledge to support our clients, whose operations in turn have to meet commercial, environmental and regulatory requirements.”

But for those arguing the engineering profession needs to step up and be part of the solution, this approach of basically doing bad less badly is just not good enough.

Chair of Engineers Australia’s Sustainable Engineering Society, Steve Posselt, told The Fifth Estate that the association has been looking to update its climate policy, and has been circulating a draft for consultation.

The term “climate crisis” appears in the draft, he says.

It would potentially be an update on the policies around sustainability and climate change adopted in 2014.

If it becomes an update, it would be a policy, not just a position statement, Posselt says.

The bulk of feedback so far has been supportive.

He says those working in the fossil fuel space, such as GHD, are going to have an “epiphany” – even if they don’t know it yet.

There are many in the profession who understand the role they play, including those working to introduce a sustainability component as part of compulsory CPD training.

He believes that those who continue to apply themselves to fossil fuels at the expense of the climate will find the profession might “slowly ostracise them”.

One of the tools the association has to get members to be part of the solution is the Code of Ethics. This has evolved into a multi-page document, Posselt explains, but it could be simplified. And the number one ethical responsibility would be to have community interest at the heart of their practice.

Engineers work for the community, he says.

And they have the expertise needed to develop the solutions that will avert climate crisis, as UQ adjunct professor David Hood explains.

“Engineers [who are members of EA] should abide by the code of ethics,” Hood says.

That means they must advise employers and clients if actions they take will damage the environment and/or people.

However, many interpret that as meaning “immediate damage” only – not the kind of long-term harm caused by the climate crisis.

“They greenwash it out.”

He says there are also some in the profession that if “paid well enough to neglect the science [on climate] they neglect it.”

Hood remains optimistic.

“Engineers are a big part of the solution…. When I am lecturing to first years, they get the message. They really understand.”

He points to progressive moves such as the work Professor Cheryl Desha and others are doing with the Natural Edge project, a research collaboration with Griffith University.

It is “beyond time” for his profession as a whole to step up, he says, because “it is getting too late. We are heading for a crisis.

“It’s an emergency. We need to accept it and we must go to a war-like footing.”

It’s critical to train people in the profession for new jobs that can be part of a “just transition.”

Currently, Hood says it is a harsh wakeup for many engineering graduates when they leave university full of sustainability thinking and “get out into a practice area…and get told their job relies on them trashing the planet.”

Former Shell executive and former chair of the Australian Coal Board turned climate emergency action advocate Ian Dunlop says that while a company like GHD might argue it has strong credentials when it comes to sustainability, the bottom line is its consulting work on Adani will help destroy the global climate.

It’s not just the Adani project itself, he told The Fifth Estate. The opening up of the Galilee Basin for that project will also give a leg-up to other fossil fuel project proponents in that region including Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart.

Should all these leases become active and start producing and exporting coal, the result could be a contribution of up to 1.5 degree of extra warming, Dunlop says.

The stark reality is, we currently have “no global carbon budget left” in terms of avoiding catastrophe.

He notes that the most recent IPCC report gave us a 50-60 per cent chance of meeting the Paris targets.

“But you wouldn’t get on an aircraft if there was only a 50/50 chance of it landing safely,” he notes.

The Third Degree, a report he co-authored for the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration that was released last month, examined the security implications of a three degree rise in average global temperatures.

In a nutshell – things fall apart, and badly. There would be “complete social chaos” and economic collapse. Already at our current one degree rise, many workers and communities are feeling the effects.

This scenario means engineers are among the professions that need to take moral and professional responsibility for not destroying civilisation as we know it.

This crisis cannot be solved with a “gradual response,” Dunlop says.

“Engineers learn early in their career they have to be brutally frank about problems.”

But the tough conversations have been avoided by some by not talking about the things the climate science is saying.

“I never cease to be amazed seeing people in banking and mining who are not prepared to face up to the facts they have [partly] created.”

Dunlop says there is a fundamental discussion needed in the engineering profession around ethical standards and properly applying them to look at climate change impacts.

People have to be “brutally frank about what we have got to do.”

Applying engineering to talents to expanding fossil fuel exploitation and use is “completely irresponsible.”

“The first priority should be to look after the security of people.”

Dunlop believes there will be enough jobs for engineers in a low-carbon scenario, but while the government is in “complete denial” about the urgency of action, the approach to investment in renewable energy and energy-efficiency will be suboptimal.

“The jobs are nowhere near the level of opportunities that should be there if we had proper policy.”

Instead, we have a government that is effectively subsidising the fossil fuel industry to the tune of $29 billion a year because of the absence of a price on carbon, Dunlop says. That’s just one billion short of the entire $30 billion annual Defence budget.

“We need people who are prepared to stand up.”

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  1. As we prop up delusions of our representatives in Canberra, discriminating very much in favour of fossil fuel foreigners, who, as we compete,for example, to beat Qatar as worlds biggest exporter of LNG,
    find that Qatar collects $26Billion annual tax, compared to our $800Million.

    Australia is anything but a lucky Country.

    At the other extreme, James Lovelock warns that we don’t even account for CO2 emissions from humanity, pets and food animals, just breathing actually 23% of total. Also Mother Nature is a vengeful deity who can be relied upon to wreak her revenge for damage by our species. Engineers really do need to take a look at themselves.

  2. I am aware of the calls for urgent action on limiting CO2 released into the atmosphere.What is not so clear is the immediate actions that should be taken as we go onto a war footing.Do actions mean shutting down all thermal coal supplies leaving Australia immediately or is there a time frame?
    Closer to home, the hopeless strategic planning for the progressive increase in renewable energy is a real and immediate issue. Critical infrastructure, and long term investment in key assets is sadly lacking.We seem to be punting on breakthroughs in battery technology that will see them provide power from 4 pm to 9 am – the period PV is asleep. Pumped hydro is proven technology with minimum environmental impact. WE need Engineers, supported by public funds, to install this monopoly power source sooner rather than later.