The fate of human society depends on a sustainable future. Engineers must be part of the solution, writes Graham Davies.
Can our society last in its current form for 10,000 years? One thousand years?
When asked this question, most people answer no to even 100 years. People feel intuitively that our lifestyles are not sustainable.
But what does this mean? In its simplest form, sustainability means being able to continue indefinitely, or at least for a lengthy period.
There are many existential threats to humanity, and probably the greatest is the degradation of the environment, on which we depend entirely.
This is not a political left-right debate. In 1989, Margaret Thatcher provided gravitas to issues like deforestation, climate change and fossil fuels in a 4000-word address to the United Nations, saying: “Of all the challenges faced by the world community … one has grown clearer than any other in both urgency and importance … the threat to our global environment.”
Her speech was significant because of her scientific and conservative background, and because it is consistent with the views of all major scientific bodies including the CSIRO, the Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology, NASA, the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund.
With greater urgency than ever required, why has progress been so slow over the past 30 years?
It is necessary to explore the overarching principles around sustainability. It is not possible to have infinite growth — of population, of materials, of waste — and endless extraction on a finite planet.
We need to live within system limits. Everything, from elements to medicine to carbon dioxide to body mass, exists in a finely tuned balance — not too hot nor too cold.
All species naturally want to improve their situation. Humans became the masters of inventing tools, which led to mechanisation, industrialisation and automation, and, in turn, our high standard of living. However, tools alone would be ineffective without an energy source beyond human labour.
Abundant energy has allowed food and material production rates to far exceed what was previously possible. This has led to the exploitation of the Earth’s natural resources, and consumption and waste generation that threatens the longevity — the sustainability — of our civilisation.
Engineers can be proud of the aeroplanes, buildings, refrigeration, communications and appliances that have led to our modern lifestyle, but these artefacts have led to depletion and contamination of the ecosystem.
As a result, it behoves engineers to carefully consider the Code of Ethics’ instruction “to use our knowledge for the benefit of the community and for a sustainable future ahead of sectional interests”.
‘Free’ abundant energy has driven the current unsustainable state of affairs and so requires a greater understanding. Of Australia’s energy, 35 per cent is used in transport, 45 per cent in industry and 10 per cent in homes. Electricity makes up 40 per cent of energy consumption, of which 15 per cent is from renewable sources.
‘Embodied energy’ — the total energy required to make products — accounts for the bulk of our energy usage. As an example, a computer uses five times as much energy to make as it uses in its life of operations.
Thus, when you throw away products, you throw away energy. The increased trend towards shorter product life is increasing company revenues, but also energy and waste. In her 1989 UN address, Thatcher said: “Multinationals have to take the long view. There will be no profit or satisfaction for anyone if pollution continues to destroy our planet.”
Company directors and CEOs are legally bound to maximise financial returns for shareholders. However, their financial statements do not attribute a fair cost for shared natural resources, emissions, waste and social disruption — externalised costs which will be borne by society.
The global effort to ensure sustainability is often referred to as a ‘tragedy of the commons’, which requires everyone to pull their weight. Unfortunately, Australia lacks the leadership to address the fact that we produce 1.5 per cent of the world emissions yet have only 0.3 per cent of the world’s population.
So what can be done? I’d suggest that we recognise the problem and risks, engage all stakeholders, ensure a transparent and fair system, replace GDP — which only measures economic activity — with value metrics, ensure all externalities are paid by the proponent in a whole-of-lifecycle analysis and work towards greater prosperity for all.
There are a number of encouraging signs. The community is overwhelmingly in favour of positive action. A mix of distributed renewable energy, demand management, storage and energy efficiency will produce the most affordable, reliable and quality electricity.
Engineers are at the forefront of waste management, recycling and climate adaptation. It is possible to have a sustainable society and also improve our wellbeing.
Graham Davies is the Immediate Past Chair, Sustainable Engineering Society, Engineers Australia.
This article originally appeared as “Sounding the alarm” in the December 2018 issue of create magazine.