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Sustainability in Engineering: 7 lessons for a net-zero future

Joseph Flaig

Sustainability in Engineering was the second Engineering Futures event (Credit: Shutterstock)
Sustainability in Engineering was the second Engineering Futures event (Credit: Shutterstock)

The scale of the challenge has never been clearer – the world must decarbonise, and do it quickly. But what are the most promising low-carbon solutions, and how can engineers maximise their companies’ contribution in the push for ‘net zero’?

That was the premise of Sustainability in Engineering, an online event held last week by Professional Engineering. The second Engineering Futures webinar series covered a huge range of technologies, approaches, and engineering sectors across 14 sessions, all of which are now available on-demand.  

Here are seven lessons for a net-zero future, as discussed at Sustainability in Engineering.  

1. Collaboration can overcome even the biggest challenges 

Few engineering challenges are as daunting as tackling the growing issue of space debris, which threatens existing satellites and could jeopardise future space missions.  

Many satellite operators do not factor in ‘end of life’, said the IMechE’s Paul Pitcher during Space and the Sustainability Challenge – but such a monumental challenge could become much more manageable with collaboration, he said, and post-mission disposal regulations could show a way forward.  

“If this is something we can all tackle together, I don’t see many barriers to compliance,” Pitcher said. “Analysis is showing if we have something like 90% compliance, the problem diminishes significantly.” 

2. Take a holistic approach 

One of the many things the climate emergency has highlighted is the interconnectivity that underlies all systems on Earth. Engineering projects are no different, with countless connected elements coming together to form the whole.  

“Every project is multi-disciplinary,” said Ioana Price, senior structural engineer at infrastructure experts Aecom. "We collaborate together to co-ordinate and make sure we create a holistic building... our building is also a living system.”  

Speaking during Tackling the #ClimateEmergency: Here’s How, she added: “If we want to make a difference, we can’t just change one thing – we have to change everything, because sustainability touches every aspect of our buildings.” 

Companies should pay close attention to ‘embodied carbon’ when trying to make buildings as sustainable as possible, she said – half of all a building’s carbon emissions can come during the comparatively brief construction period. 

3. Don’t underestimate the rate of change 

Dr Alejandro Block Novelo gave a personal example as he described the history of aviation, and hydrogen’s involvement over the years – when his grandmother was born in 1927 biplanes were flying with piston engines, but she has seen monumental changes in the aerospace sector over her 94 years. 

Even if the development of zero-carbon commercial flight might seem to take a long time, he said, it is easy to forget how quick the rate of change can be.  

“Within my grandma’s lifetime, she has seen pretty much the whole history of aviation,” he said, during A Zero-Carbon Future for Aviation. "We do speak about long development times... 10 years to certify an engine for example, aircraft stay airborne for 20 years. But within the lifetime of one single person, we went from biplanes to supersonic aircraft to composite material aircraft. So there is a little bit of hope there.” 

4. Use accessible language whenever possible  

The journey to net zero will not be carried out in isolation, and the success of any sustainable project relies on close collaboration between all stakeholders – including professionals from different disciplines, engineers from other sectors, and members of the public.  

“Great collaboration comes from working through problems together,” said Helen Meese from the Care Machine and the IMechE, during Engineering a Sustainable Future. “Communication is all about the language we use, and as engineers we often use language that isn’t accessible to a lot of people.” 

Co-speaker Angela Hobbs, a resident innovation coach in Oxford, also highlighted the importance of working together. “We’re seeing massive disruption and change, and what we need more than ever is collaboration,” she said. "Who can you turn to to empower more activity?” 

‘Carbon champions’ – such as those at the Institution of Civil Engineers – can help spread the word and educate people about sustainable engineering, she said.  

5. Reuse and recycle creatively  

Electrification of transport is a central pillar of global decarbonisation efforts, but it can cause less-than-sustainable outcomes. Complete recycling of lithium-ion batteries from electric vehicles, for example, is still a major challenge.  

Assessment of electric car batteries at their ‘end of life’ found only 10% needed to be taken out, said Mike Hague-Morgan from Autocraft Solutions Group during Automotive Engineering Technology. Simply throwing them out would be a waste of resources, however.  

“We could put them back into vehicles,” he said. “The reality is there’s a huge market for EV batteries at the moment... and there’s a lot of niche applications out there that need exactly the same cells and modules.”  

Other applications have such gentle power cycles that they could last for 20-30 years, he added.  

6. Think on your feet 

The Covid-19 pandemic has upended life around the world, and caused unprecedented disruption to supply chains and productivity. Some companies were better equipped to overcome the associated challenges, however, according to Matt Hatch from Protolabs.  

“The manufacturers that did well during the pandemic were the agile ones,” he said, speaking at An Introduction to Protolabs, the Future of Manufacturing and the Importance of Sustainability. That quality will be increasingly important as companies navigate future challenges whilst increasing sustainability, he said.  

7. It’s time to go ‘above and beyond’ 

Engineers have got a “huge role” in increasing sustainability and should not limit their ambition, said Nicola Bagshawe, associate director of Hoare Lea, during the Closing Discussion. “If we’re not going above and beyond industry expectations then we’re not serving society,” she said.  

Regulators also have a vital role in enabling and accelerating sustainable change. “The construction industry is inherently slow to change,” she said. "In my opinion, it’s not until regulations change that manufacturers bring forward new products.” 

Join IMechE and Professional Engineering at THE virtual fair for early engineering careers and find your perfect job! Register for EngRec 2021 FREE today.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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