2020 saw the global temperature reach a mean of 1.2 °C above pre-industrial levels for the first time – the second hottest year on record. Climate scientists are now anticipating that we could eclipse 1.5 °C by 2024. This would render the 2016 Paris Agreement a complete failure. 

Such figures sound abstract, but climate breakdown is already having a devastating impact on the ground. Flooding, drought, food insecurity and heatwaves are becoming increasingly commonplace. Meanwhile, we are experiencing biodiversity collapse, with around 100,000 species currently endangered and rates of extinction 1,000 times higher than a pre-human age. This is humanity’s greatest challenge and engineers must collectively work to tackle it.

The gulf between principles and practice: engineering today

In theory, the engineering profession works to tackle the burgeoning challenge of climate breakdown. This is reflected in the ethical codes of all major engineering bodies around the world.

For example, preserving the environment is a core ethical principle of engineering in the UK. In practice, this means to: ‘Maximise the public good and minimise both actual and potential adverse effects for their own and succeeding generations’ (Engineering Council, Statement of Ethical Principles).

Whilst the idea of improving people’s lives may be central to the profession’s theoretical value set, in practice this is in direct tension with its makeup. Engineers predominantly work for private companies who are firstly led by the profit motive and returning profits to shareholders, and only secondly concerned with environmental impacts. 

…to achieve the 2030 targets at the speed and scale required, it is crucial that the sector moves away from viewing climate action through the lens of financial growth and asset protection…

One way in which engineering businesses have presented the profit motive as compatible with both the profession’s ethical framework and tackling climate breakdown is to emphasise the importance of technological innovation.

For example, carbon capture technology has gained significant market support and been promoted as a near panacea for achieving net zero carbon emissions. Yet, in practice, it appears to be a greenwashing front, as the carbon capture systems have been found to be net polluters over their life cycle. 

The value of an ‘innovation-led’ solution for private companies is that it does not stipulate structural change. Promoting this approach effectively shifts the debate away from deeper structural, but profit jeopardising, change.

In order to achieve the 2030 targets at the speed and scale required, it is therefore crucial that the sector moves away from viewing climate action through the lens of financial growth and asset protection, and prioritises taking the necessary measures to reverse the impacts of climate change.

The problem starts earlier: educating the next generation

In the United States, some academics have argued that a lack of focus on ethical principles and wider ‘social consciousness’ in taught engineering courses has played a role in a declining interest in tackling social welfare issues amongst students. A similar “culture of disengagement” exists amongst student engineers more broadly – arguably a product of an exclusive focus on technical aspects of the discipline in taught courses. 

93% of UK engineering companies with a sustainability strategy do not have staff with the skills to fulfil it. 

However, beyond neglecting to foster the mindsets needed to advocate for change in the sector, engineering education is also failing to equip engineers with the skills to address increasingly complex global challenges. As a result, the engineering sector is now facing a major skills crisis, with findings from a recent survey by the Institution of Engineering and Technology indicating that 93% of UK engineering companies with a sustainability strategy do not have staff with the skills to fulfil it. 

To address this, reimagining engineering education must go further than ensuring students gain a scientific or technological understanding of climate issues. Ensuring engineers leave university with the ability to incorporate a range of disciplines into solutions, engage with diverse communities, and understand the ethical dimensions of engineering will be fundamental for creating a workforce that is able to build sustainable and resilient systems that work for all people.

Until this happens, the next generation of engineers and current practitioners will remain ill-prepared to tackle the major challenges of this century. 

Centring advocacy: the fightback starts now

Encouragingly, there is a clear appetite in the industry for positive change. According to new research by the Institution of Civil Engineers, 60% of civil engineers do not feel climate change is prioritised sufficiently in infrastructure design and delivery, while 68% of surveyed engineers in a US study agreed that the profession should incorporate pro bono work. However, tackling the systemic issue of climate breakdown cannot be limited to tokenistic, individualised pro bono work.

This is where advocacy can make the difference. Global Policy vice president at Global Citizen, Liz Agbor-Tabi asserts that advocacy means: ‘Using your voice to influence decision-makers and demanding change that works for the benefit of humanity.’

Effective advocacy requires engineers to recognise that their technical skills are essential to tackle climate breakdown. The designing of the renewable energy grids, public transport systems and decarbonised, liveable built environments of the future is impossible without engineering.

…the positive legacy of the profession risks being wiped out altogether unless concrete action is taken against climate breakdown.

But advocacy also requires engineers to think more holistically. Engineers must recognise where cultural or policy shifts are better placed than engineering solutions to solve the problem. To this end, advocacy also means calling for systemic change – using the weight of the profession to lobby for causes such as an increased overseas development budget or a carbon tax. 

Engineering is a dominant profession globally – in the UK alone, 1 in 5 people work for engineering companies. Engineers must therefore use their collective bargaining power to organise and shape the aims of industry from within.

For example, this could take the form of climate strikes that stipulate employee representation on company boards and divestment from fossil fuel interests. This would ensure that the profession’s direction is shaped by the technical professionals themselves rather than just shareholder profits. Whilst this approach seems radical, the positive legacy of the profession risks being wiped out altogether unless concrete action is taken against climate breakdown. 

Collective action has also already yielded significant results – Google engineers lobbied company management to cancel their controversial US military contract, Project Maven, on ethical grounds, as it used AI to speed up drone classification of military targets. 

However, effective engineering advocacy is ultimately only possible if the industry retains the best talent and instils the profession’s ethical principles through education. This requires a culture shift at the foundational level – environmental and social welfare should be core requirements across all engineering degrees, alongside technical modules. 

Personal motivations

I strive to use engineering as a practical tool for global social and climate justice. Arguably, this is the most effective way to re-centre engineering ethical principles at the heart of the profession. I anticipate that as the effects of climate breakdown worsen in the coming decades, there will be a reckoning with the profession and a shift towards centring advocacy.

Ultimately, the responsibility of engineers mirrors the transition required of the wider global economy. It is only because engineers have the practical skills to prevent climate breakdown that they must act first.

If you are interested in collaboratively reshaping how engineering is taught and practised to ensure a safe and just future for all, consider participating in our month-long design challenge – Reshaping Engineering. Learn more about this unique professional development opportunity, running throughout February 2023, below.

I want to reshape engineering!

This article was written by a student at the University of Warwick, in partial fulfilment of an MSc in Humanitarian Engineering.

If you have a story to share or want to find out more about our volunteering opportunities, head to our volunteer page