Time for a sustained effort

This month sees the start of an inquiry into what engineers can do to put sustainable development at the heart of the economy, writes Sara Parkin

Earlier this year, the Government’s strategy for sustainable development stated: `As economies grow, continually greater reductions in emissions relative to economic output will be required, rising to tenfold and beyond.’ There was a clear expectation that all sectors, particularly business and industry, should `do their bit’.

But until last year, while there were a number of initiatives by engineering bodies, individual engineers and employers to tackle issues of sustainablitiy, there was no rallying point to co-ordinate their efforts.

An indicator that change was needed was a worrying shortfall in high-quality young people taking up engineering as a career. With society facing the acute challenge of sustainability, it seemed unthinkable that we should be short of top engineers – the people who best understand the scientific principles of development.

So in 1998 a small group of concerned engineers formed Engineers for Sustainability, which later this month launches an inquiry into the possible demands on engineers in the next century.

Sustainable development presents an ethical challenge as we question the assumptions on which we base human progress. But it is also a practical challenge. For at its heart is the need to make a huge improvement in the efficiency with which we use energy and raw materials. To cope with a rising world population and lift people out of poverty, efficiency gains of around 90% will be needed.

Environmental technology and services are seen as areas of key competitive opportunity for the UK. The next round of the Government’s Foresight Programme, which brings industry and academia together to develop technologies with future commercial potential, has made sustainable development, education and training an overarching theme.

The Engineers for Sustainability inquiry is supported by WSPGroup, BG (formerly British Gas), the Department of Trade and Industry, The Office of Science and Technology and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. It will open with a seminar on 20 September addressed by science minister Lord Sainsbury, and will define four or five themes for the inquiry. The outcome will be a report, with recommendations.

A final event, to coincide with next June’s ET2000 environmental technology exhibition in Birmingham, will present the report and outline projects to promote sustainability.

Young engineers from 15 sponsoring firms will form consortia to work on each theme. The inquiry requires them to gather a wide range of evidence, so engineers from many companies and organisations can expect to be involved.

We are undergoing what has been called a `sustainability revolution’ and these young engineers are preparing to be at the heart of it. To be effective, they need to marry senior engineers’ experience with their own vision for tomorrow. So, if they contact your company, be generous with your time. It matters.

Sara Parkin is programme director and founder member of sustainable development charity Forum for the Future