Do engineers have the right tools to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals?

During the World Engineers Convention in late 2019, engineers committed to helping build a better world by signing a declaration to advance the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Now, engineers have a clear mandate about their role in helping communities live more sustainably.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by all UN Member States in 2015 as part of an urgent call to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges, including poverty, inequality and peace.

Goals where engineering skills will be in demand include clean water and sanitation for all (Goal 6), availability of sustainable energy sources (Goal 7), creating strong and resilient infrastructure (Goal 9) and liveable cities (Goal 11).

But other goals, such as responsible consumption and production (Goal 12) or quality education (Goal 4) will also rely on engineering skills even if this is not immediately obvious.

What needs to happen to make progress and achieve the SDGs by their 2030 deadline? A recently developed guide aims to provide engineers with practical tools to implement sustainable practices in their work to help move the dial.

Solutions in practical resources

With such a broad scope, the engineering community will be challenged as it attempts to reach milestones and eradicate some of the world’s most difficult problems.

But the bigger question remains: how do engineers help the world reach these goals?

Equally important is: how do engineers across disciplines, industries and geographies coordinate and apply appropriate practices and ethics to ensure they are living up to these goals?

Not only has sustainability been a focus for engineers, but it is enshrined in Engineers Australia’s Code of Ethics, which asks engineers to: engage responsibly with the community and other stakeholders; practise engineering to foster the health, safety and wellbeing of the community and the environment; and balance the needs of the present with the needs of future generations.

National Manager of Engineer Australia’s Learned Society Sheryl Harrington said with sustainability as a core ethic of being a member of Engineers Australia, it was important they have the tools to put this into action.

To further help engineers understand their obligations and continue to promote sustainability, Engineers Australia’s Environmental College, Sustainable Engineering Technical Society and staff worked together to create the Implementing Sustainability: Principles and Practice guide.

Implementing Sustainability aims to help engineers understand the relationship between the environmental, social and economic conditions of their work.

“It was clear very early on that something was needed to help engineers live up to the standards that we had created,” Harrington said.

“Members were aware that sustainability is part of our code of ethics, but many need practical guides. There was a lot of consultation for a practical guide to implement sustainability that aligned with the Code of Ethics.”

Designing the right guide

The guide collates a range of resources including practical notes on eco-design, green-star ratings, energy and resources, stewardship and planning.

Key authors of parts A and B of the guide included: David Rice, a known advocate for sustainability in engineering; sustainability engineer Graham Davies; former president of Engineers Australia WA Division Chris Fitzhardinge; and environmental/systems engineer Lorie Jones.

Parts A and B were also workshopped by more than 100 EA members from a wide range of disciplines, along with past EA Presidents David Hood, Marlene Kanga and David Cruickshanks-Boyd. Engineers Australia’s College Chairs also provided feedback.

Harrington said the guide attempts to provide guidance on many issues that members face every day.

“A lot of employers have their own sustainability guidelines, but none from a whole-of-engineering perspective,” she said.

“We wanted a resource that was bound by ethical decision-making to assist members by providing a guide that members could use as a reference point.”

Engineers Australia Colleges are now assisting in building on the guide to help improve the resources available for the broader membership.

“As the guide has a general focus, the Environmental College and the Sustainable Engineering Technical Society are now working on developing training specific to each field of engineering,” Harrington said.

“They are initially working with the Electrical College Board to develop training specific for electrical engineers and, following this, will develop training for each field of engineering.

“If engineers know the context in which to be sustainable, it will make their jobs a lot easier.”