Comment: the engineer and the environmentalist

Engineering and environmental sustainability don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Dr Carla Washbourne and Dr Jenny McArthur, look at how a more holistic engineering mindset will be key to addressing our 21st century challenges

Image: Metamorworks via

The infrastructure sector is tasked with responding to huge societal and environmental challenges. It is a crucial piece of the puzzle in our efforts to meet the Sustainable Development Goals and in, ultimately, enabling a world that can thrive socially, economically and environmentally. But in order to do this, engineers in the sector must confront some innate contradictions between sustainable development and traditional approaches to infrastructure development; contradictions that have contributed to our current crisis.

At first glance, engineering and environmental sustainability exist on very different planes

Engineering as a discipline exists in the service of people. Historically, engineers have used our technical skills in shaping the world to the benefit of human lives. However, we are increasingly realising that the world is not so easily controlled and that many of our accepted engineering approaches have negative impacts on the environment and, unintentionally, on the people that they are intended to serve. This raises an existential question: are engineering and environmental sustainability inevitably in conflict, or can we develop a more holistic approach to engineering for complex 21st century challenges?

Dr Carla Washbourne - Lecturer in environmental science and policy, UCL

Modern engineering is still dominated by significant use of water, energy and material resources. Internationally, large construction projects make extensive use of concrete, steel and glass, without significant discretion to the environmental context of building form or materials.

Engineering retains an inclination to create artificial environments through material, architectural and technological innovation, simulating our needs for heating, cooling and lighting in functionally sealed spaces. Engineering also exists comfortably within the world of contemporary resource economics, where labour, materials and products are carefully quantified and exchanged. Environmental sustainability depends on impact reduction and a mindfulness and sensitivity towards our interactions with the wider environment.

Assigning a monetary value to the environmental impact of development projects has become more common since the end of the 20th century. However, practical and philosophical debates continue, the most central being: can, or should, we use economic thinking to judge the often poorly quantified, or effectively unquantifiable, experiences and benefits that we get from our environment?

To this day many approaches to common challenges of water supply and waste processing still rely on controlling and bypassing rather than working in sympathy with the broader environment

This isn’t a completely new concern. Environmental engineering is one area in which the relationship between engineer and environmentalist has been historically explored and tested, practically from the earliest days of civilisation. As a modern profession, environmental engineering emerged in the development of the large-scale infrastructures of the 19th century industrial revolution. However, to this day many approaches to common challenges of water supply and waste processing still rely on controlling and bypassing rather than working in sympathy with the broader environment.

Large-scale contemporary water infrastructure projects such as the Thames Tideway Tunnel are largely reflective of this approach. This project has been both praised for its scale and ambition, and criticised for its comparative lack of vision in authentically integrating more environmentally sensitive approaches[1>. Engineering has reached a critical nexus: well positioned to contribute to solutions to global challenges, but only in light of a deep reflection on long engrained assumptions and practices.

There is increasing evidence that engineering disciplines are starting to making great advances in adopting more low-impact approaches. Mindsets have begun to change across the industry, with increasing global awareness of the impacts of engineering projects as they increase in pace and scale with urbanisation and development. The scope of these impacts has become impossible to ignore, in the face of the combined challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss and water scarcity.

Dr Jenny McArthur - Lecturer in Urban Infrastructure and Policy, UCL

World-leading engineering firms dedicate significant capacity to environmental impact assessment, taking a broad-based view of the impact of developments over space and time. Technical innovations abound in design, procurement, construction and demolition, aided and accompanied by regulations which increasingly frame construction projects from a whole life cycle perspective and provide incentives and support for environmental innovation and compliance through project planning and assessment tools such as BREAAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method)[2>. Sustainability increasingly informs the standards that specify designs, materials and approaches.

Alongside technical improvements in engineering practice, it is becoming increasingly necessary to engage directly with urban planners, regulators and infrastructure decision-makers to give us the opportunity to proactively guide more environmentally-sound engineering solutions. Often the barriers result from public policy: sustainable technologies or alternatives exist, but cannot be implemented or scaled up due to poorly-aligned regulation, institutional structures, or funding or financing arrangements.

One key opportunity here is in the broad-based and non-disciplinary training of the next generation of engineers, planners and decision-makers. In many engineering degrees the broader environmental and social context is not a central part of the curriculum. Simultaneously, few courses for future policy makers enable a deep focus on engineering policy and infrastructure decision-making. We are both engineers by training (engineering geology and civil engineering), now working with a range of different communities in addressing contemporary engineering policy challenges. In our teaching on sustainable infrastructure and public policy we increasingly recognise ourselves as part of a global community of educational innovators bringing engineering and sustainable development to the same table.

Embedding environmental and sustainability concerns into the education of those shaping the next generation of infrastructure, will allow future professionals to fully embrace the holistic, large-scale and long-term approaches needed to address our 21st century challenges.

Dr Carla Washbourne and Dr Jenny McArthur are lecturers at the Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy at University of College London.


[1> Integrating what and for whom? Financialisation and the Thames Tideway Tunnel