Our planet is in a perilous position. We are draining natural resources, destroying ecosystems, and to avoid further climate crisis, emissions must drop drastically in the next decade. Meanwhile, there continues to be vast inequality across the world, with millions of people still without their basic human rights met.

Engineering has played a significant role – both good and bad – in getting humankind and the planet to where we are today. Now, we must urgently tackle numerous global challenges if we are to ensure a safe and just future for all:

  • The risk of not meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals is real. As explored in UNESCO’s Engineering for Sustainable Development Report (2021), engineering has a powerful, unique and important role to address our global challenges.
  • We are living in a climate emergency. Globally, 2020 was the second-warmest year on record with a mean temperature 1.2°C above the pre-industrial average.
  • We are living in a Biodiversity emergency. Our actions threaten about a million species – 1 in 8 – with extinction. In 2020, the mass of human-made infrastructure exceeded all biomass, and over 70% of ice-free land is now under human control.
  • The impact of the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic will last for years. It has had a devastating social impact, with a huge number of lives lost, as well as economic and social disruption, which has exacerbated poverty rates and damaged global education and mental health.

Whilst the engineering community will not tackle the world’s problems alone, we are in a unique and powerful position to accelerate progress. To do this we must overhaul engineering culture to make social and environmental justice a cornerstone of day to day practice, ensuring a more globally responsible approach.

One model we believe can effectively guide this approach is economist Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics. This alternative economic framework provides a template by which we can measure and value human development, beyond the simple metric of GDP. The model visually highlights that we should aim to live in the ‘safe and just space’ for all humanity – this means meeting everyone’s social foundations, shaped by the UN SDGs, within the ecological ceiling, defined by the nine planetary boundaries identified by the scientific community (Rockstrom et al).

Read the Global Responsibility of Engineering report

The report explores the extent to which global responsibility is embedded in engineering practice, the practical barriers holding back progress and the actions required to transform the culture of engineering.

We have already overshot at least four of these limits, such as allowing too many species to become extinct and producing too much C02, while millions still lack access to their basic human rights, like clean, running water. Adopting the doughnut model’s principles is vital in engineering, particularly if we are to meet the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

To achieve this, there is an urgent requirement to upskill our current workforce and transform engineering education to prepare future generations to practice globally responsible engineering. Engineering education and practice used to evolve with the needs of society – but evidence shows that this has stagnated, with a recent survey finding that 93% of UK engineering companies with a sustainability strategy do not have staff with the skills to fulfil it. 

At Engineers Without Borders UK we are working with educators, students, industry leader, professionals, institutions and policy makers to reach the tipping point for globally responsible engineering.