Every one of the Sustainable Development Goals needs engineers, says expert

If the world is to meet the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it must turn to engineers for help, writes Adrian Piani.

When the United Nations replaced its Millennium Development Goals of 2000-2015 with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the list of outcomes grew from eight to 17. A better future went from one focused on bringing along developing countries to one bringing along everyone.

Seeking to combat “all forms of poverty, fight inequalities and tackle climate change”, the goals also brought into view the importance of engineers in achieving a brighter future.

A look at the list for the period 2015 to 2030 quickly calls up implications for the profession. Goals 6 (clean water and sanitation), 7 (affordable and clean energy), 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure) and 11 (sustainable cities and communities) have obvious engineering requirements associated with them.

According to the UN Development Programme, 40 per cent of the global population is affected by water scarcity. The demand for energy is growing, yet the need to mitigate growth in greenhouse gas emissions is clear. The planet is increasingly connected, yet four billion people have no internet access. And more than half of humanity is in cities, with this number set to become two-thirds by 2050, creating many new ‘megacities’.     

There are other goals on the list that have a definite, if not immediately obvious, need for engineering. Number 12 — responsible consumption and production — will need improved methods of recycling and processing if things like food waste are to be reduced.

Then consider number 2: zero hunger. The production of more – and more nutritious – food will be aided by factors that include pest outbreak and climate modelling, safe and sustainable herbicides and fertilisers, and the development of different strains of crops and animals. All of this will require expertise from the relevant engineering disciplines.     

Answering the call

The profession’s leadership is keenly aware of the need for its contribution. The global peak body, the World Federation of Engineering Organizations (WFEO), has a strategic goal of advancing the SDGs through engineering. Dr Marlene Kanga, a past President of Engineers Australia and the current President of the WFEO, tells us that “every one of the SDGs requires engineering”.

This even includes goal 16: peace, justice and strong institutions. Corruption is a huge waste for developing countries. The WFEO, said Kanga, “has a focus on anti-corruption in engineering, in infrastructure development … and we will certainly have a focus on this at the World Engineers Convention 2019”.

Bringing everyone on the planet along through the SDGs will require a noticeable beefing up of engineering muscle. As an example, it’s predicted that Africa, if it’s to meet the goals, will need a minimum of 2.5 million new engineers to create the necessary economic and social infrastructure.   

Building the future

We also asked the Green Building Council of Australia, which has worked as part of the National Sustainable Development Council, about the goals’ relevance to the built environment. The GBCA, which launched the nation’s Green Star sustainability rating system, represents more than 600 companies and is “the nation’s authority on sustainable buildings, communities and cities”.

Sandra Qian, Senior Advisor of Policy and Government Relations at the organisation, said the SDGs are influencing the way its members think about sustainability issues, with “a sharper focus in our sector on getting the balance right in our cities, communities and buildings”.

Furthermore, engineers, according to the GBCA, had a “clear line of sight to the ways that SDGs can be achieved in their line of work, through those elements of the SDGs which are material, and also by influencing outcomes”, citing a program that linked with Goal 11.

“Our work with rail authorities in Victoria to develop Green Star — Design and As Built railway stations, was a great example of how engineers are using their market power to improve regular business practices by ensuring the principles of environmental, social and economic sustainability were included in their projects,” Qian said.

The SDGs offer a framework for sustainability, peace and prosperity. Engineers have an important part to play in achieving these admirable goals. 

Adrian Piani is Chair, College of Environmental Engineers, Engineers Australia.

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