Technical responses to climate change
Q: This fall, at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), dozens of countries will discuss how to reduce net carbon emissions to zero by 2050. How engineers can they contribute to this goal of net zero?
Anderson: I think it’s going to take a whole bunch of stuff; every part of life is going to have to reduce energy consumption.
We will have to replace some carbon fuels with renewable energies, which is happening slowly but surely. Solar was prohibitive 30 years ago, and now it is becoming very profitable. One step that engineers can take is to use renewable energy production in homes and skyscrapers; there is a big effort to design skyscrapers with wind turbines and solar panels.
And we need to improve efficiency by making everything we use, like refrigerators and cars, more energy efficient. An important goal is to reduce energy consumption in manufacturing. Manufacturing accounts for almost 25% of energy use in the United States, so we need to find more energy-efficient ways to make finished metals, cement, and other products.
Another way engineers can help reduce CO2 emissions is by sequestering it – capturing and storing CO2 from power plants as it is emitted, so it cannot enter the atmosphere. Studies are also looking at ways to make trees and other plants more efficient as natural carbon sinks.
Also, if we don’t do more with nuclear power, there is no way to reach net zero by 2050. NAE currently has a study on advanced nuclear reactors – smaller reactors that have the potential to be safer, cheaper to build, and better integrated with the modern grid.
We will be discussing some of these things at the NAE Annual Meeting.
Q: You pointed out the need for engineers to think about fairness in their work on climate change. What are some examples of inequities in the impacts of climate change, and how could engineering decisions exacerbate or reduce them?
Anderson: In general, people living in poverty live in areas where no one else wants to live – in low lying areas that are heavily flooded, for example, and in old buildings that need to be renovated. This is where some inequity comes in.
An important action to minimize inequalities is to protect against flooding and blast destruction, and to ensure that when we come back to rebuild, we will build better – not rebuild in dangerous places where you know it will. will happen again. Protecting electricity and drinking water for all is vital; that’s what we need to focus on as engineers and as citizens and political leaders. It means designing systems that protect these things.
Q: Do you think the higher education system is doing enough to make young engineers think about fairness in their work? Are there things that engineering programs should do differently?
Anderson: Teaching ethics through lectures and project work has been introduced in most engineering schools across the country and is required for accreditation. However, more can always be done.
I argued that we should include more social sciences in engineering curricula. This is important if we want more ethical considerations in the practice of engineering. I don’t just want to tick a box that says, âI took a psychology or sociology course. I mean social science and engineering professors work together on courses, so when engineers design something, they’re wondering: what are the potential unintended consequences of this? Some unintended consequences are heavily weighted to promote inequalities, in particular based on poverty.
Q: What kind of work is the NAE currently doing on climate change?
Anderson: We do a number of things. For example, the NAE has established a Business Advisory Board – a group of current or former technical industry executives who represent the pharmaceutical, petrochemical, IT, transportation, and other industries. The committee has formed an energy working group that works with national academies to assess issues of energy production and use in the context of climate change mitigation.
We are also embarking – under the guidance of one of these technical leaders – in an effort around sustainability in commercial operations and residential life, which includes among other things reducing the carbon footprint and using less fuel. materials for construction and everyday life. Engineering for sustainability will be a theme we will focus on over the next few years.
Of course, many members of the NAE are involved in various studies of the national academies related to climate change. In my discussions with our members, climate change is mentioned as one of the most important challenges we face, along with pandemics.