As we face grand challenges, Alexandra Meldrum says let’s consider the practical actions we can each take to help shape a sustainable future
WE have an opportunity now that is unprecedented. The start of the year is a time to refresh our goals and rethink our approach. During the pandemic of the past few years, I was pleased to see a renewed respect worldwide for science. I’d like to see this continue, as we embrace the interlinked challenges of climate change, food-water-energy security, and health and well-being – in order to shape a sustainable future.
According to The Economist, 2022 was a year that asked questions and put the world to the test. I’d like to see 2023 as a year in which we accept the challenge, and act on the opportunities.
It’s not an easy time. We have multiple long-term transitions in sustainability, demography and technology.
The economic challenges in countries are considerable. Globally, the recessionary risks are rising in an inflationary environment with rising cost of living. The risk is greater given ongoing wars, and the reduced capacity of many countries and organisations to respond due to increasing debt and rising interest rates.
A recent survey of CEOs identified that workforce, climate and cybersecurity are the key concerns that “keeps them up at night”. The World Economic Forum published their annual Global Risks Report in January identifying “a series of deeply interconnected global risks, with the cost of living crisis being the most significant short-term risk [and] the failure of climate mitigation and climate adaptation is the most considerable long-term concern.”
As chemical engineers, we can focus on developing and implementing the technologies and capabilities that will make a meaningful difference for society and our world through four important interconnected pillars - environmental, social, governance and financial.
I think that most chemical engineers understand the nature of human-induced climate change and the importance of taking urgent climate action and protecting our environment and biodiversity.
Achieving net zero on greenhouse gases won’t be easy. To address climate change, the sheer scale of the challenge is staggering. These challenges encompass the resulting environmental impacts to land, water, food systems, and the built environments in which we live. The changes required to meet these challenges will be driven in part by changes to financial and regulatory instruments. These include investment, insurance, and the nature-related disclosures that businesses need to make to recognise and protect the economic value of the natural systems that we rely upon.
We can see the central role of chemical engineering in areas such as emissions reduction, circular economy, stewardship of nitrogen, energy transition, water systems, food systems and responsible production. The scope is broad, and changes in individual industries will add up across economies.
I recently represented IChemE at the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) Activate Conference in Sydney, where a keynote speaker described climate change as “a great big engineering challenge”. I think that is a positive way to frame our approach.
Our world population has just passed 8bn people. That’s a staggering number of people on our small blue planet.
As engineers, looking through a social lens, we follow our code of ethics, and serve society. That’s our role – as professionals.
We also need to understand and respect our stakeholders, including workforce and customers, and their community licences to operate. For engineers, that often means a focus on safety first.
We also need to think about supply chains. The worldwide skills shortages are obvious. But we need to think deeper than that about the social impacts. This is more complex than it might seem at first glance. For instance, when working in government, I recall discussions a few years ago about how to design policies to deal with modern slavery, and just how difficult these issues are to truly address. Also, we discussed the fairness of how we go about doing business, including how we would ensure that small business had opportunities to sell to government without being ‘shut out’ by unconscious bias of our purchasing instruments and criteria.
Resilience has been tested with emergencies. Two recent examples come to mind. The first was the international response during the Covid-19 pandemic – from scientific experts, first responders, and engineers. The second was more local, closer to home in Australia, seeing the ‘whole of community’ response as people experienced floods, recovered, and then experienced floods again.
These emergencies really tested our resilience – as countries, as communities, and as professionals. There were also outstanding efforts and achievements. The rapid innovation to create, produce and deliver vaccines, was a historic achievement.
I think there’s a lot more to be done in the social areas. We can greatly improve our work with stakeholders. There are gaps, and these provide areas for us to improve.
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