Engineers in Australia and elsewhere have a critical role in addressing worldwide climate challenges, a former US Vice President says.

Speaking at the Climate Smart Engineering Conference hosted by Engineers Australia in November, former US Vice President Al Gore said that engineering skills are at the forefront of a worldwide revolution in sustainable operations.

“We are now in the early stages of a sustainability revolution driven in part by machine learning, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and the astonishing advances in biotechnology,” Gore said.

“This is a revolution that has the potential to reshape the world for the better by transforming our relationship with businesses, the environment and one another.

“At core to this is engineering. You (engineers) are engineering this revolution.

“Indeed, the challenge posed to humanity by the climate crisis demands that almost everything around us needs to be reinvented and reengineered in order for us to shift away from the harmful and deadly polluting practices that are destroying our planet’s ecological systems and toward the solutions that will allow us to protect them and to save humanity’s future.”

Despite his optimism, Gore says it is important to acknowledge current and future climate challenges.

As things stand, he says 162 million tonnes of human induced global warming pollution enters the atmosphere each day.

With each molecule lingering in the sky for an average of around 100 years, the accumulated pollution now traps as much heat energy as would be trapped by 600,000 Hiroshima class atomic bombs exploding on the earth every 24 hours.

Consequences are evident.

In particular:

  • Worldwide, 2020 was the hottest year on record
  • Nineteen of the twenty hottest years that have been measured with instruments have occurred since 2000.
  • As many as 85 percent live of the world’s population live in areas which have been impacted by climate change: stronger storms, larger downpours, more destructive floods and droughts, crop failures, strengthening wildfires, sea level rise, ocean acidification, loss of living species etc.
  • Increasing numbers of human climate refugees. The Lancet Commission predicts that as many as one billion people may be forced to leave their home and move elsewhere over the balance of the century as extreme heat and higher humidity make conditions unliveable in some tropical and subtropical areas.
  • In Australia, the 2019/20 wildfire season killed dozens, forced evacuations of tens of thousands and destroyed nearly 2,500 homes. A recent study found that climate change made these estimates 30 percent more likely.
  • Oceans have become 30 percent more acidic compared with the industrial revolution
  • In total, extreme weather disasters have cost the global economy $2.5 trillion over the last decade – an increase of almost one trillion compared with the previous decade.
  • Globally, extreme rainfall events are now four times more likely compared with the 1980s.

Gore says these events are affecting the work of engineers. Train tracks buckling from heat are needing emergency replacement. Previously well-designed flood barriers are no longer a match for record breaking rainfall. Previous design standards which are no longer adequate are seeing roads, bridges, sewer systems and other public services pushed to the limit.

Nevertheless, he says engineering is driving a revolution which will help to address the problem.

In particular:

  • In energy, renewable sources accounted for more than 90 percent of additions to installed generation capacity in 2020 and are now the cheapest source of electricity in more than two-thirds of the world as of 2019. More than 300 global companies – and many more local ones have promised to go 100 percent renewable. Amid its own abundance of wind and sunshine, Australia has installed rooftop solar systems on more than three million homes whilst a 4,000 kilometre undersea cable will connect renewable power generated from Australia with Singapore and provide up to 15 percent of that country’s renewable energy needs.
  • In transport, electric vehicles will reach cost competitiveness with their internal combustion counterparts for large vehicles and SUVs in 2022 and for all vehicle types in 2023 in both the US and Australian markets. General Motors intends to produce only zero emission vehicles by 2035; Volvo intends to do so even earlier by 2030. In commercial trucking, electric semi-trucks are becoming increasingly cost competitive with diesel fuelled trucks. Electric busses are displacing their diesel counterparts – Shanghai and Shenzhen are already buying only EV busses.
  • Green hydrogen is showing promise in transport and many other sectors such as heavy industrial manufacturing.
  • In food and agriculture – which a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report suggests is responsible for 25 percent to 30 percent of global GHG emissions once crop and livestock activities, land use and land use change including deforestation and supply chain activities including food waste are considered – a shift toward sustainable forestry and regenerative agriculture can help the sector to become part of the climate solution. Such strategies can also provide co-benefits such as job creation, resiliency for farmers, biodiversity protection and improvements for fresh water quality and availability.
  • In civil engineering and urban planning, cities and governments are prioritising sustainability in architecture/urban design in a way that integrates public transit, mixed-use development, clean energy generation, green spaces and more.
  • In building and construction – which accounts for 38 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally – opportunities to improve sustainability are evident in retrofitting existing stock in the developed world and driving sustainable solutions in new builds in the developing world (and also in the developed world). This has the added benefit of reducing long-term commercial and residential energy bills.

In addition to being beneficial for the environment, Gore says action in aforementioned areas can deliver other benefits.

On the economic front, he points to research by the International Energy which predicts that  a net of 25 million jobs worldwide would be created by 2030 alone if the IEA’s pathway to NetZero by 2050 was followed. This includes new roles in clean energy; design and manufacturing of more energy efficient appliances; design and manufacturing of advanced vehicles; and building retrofits and energy efficient construction.

Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will also help to address pollution, which kills nine million people each year worldwide.

Finally, retrofitting low-income households with energy efficient improvements will help to reduce energy costs and poverty. Meanwhile, upgrading the electricity grid to provide additional solar and wind power capacity and expanding its reach into rural communities can help to boost access to telehealth, communication and job opportunities in rural and regional areas.

Gore’s comments follow last year’s UN COP 26 Climate Change Conference in Glascow.

That in turn followed earlier warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that human induced global warming was occurring more rapidly compared with what had been previously anticipated.

Whilst expressing disappointment that actions agreed to during at Glascow were not in themselves sufficient to limit man-made climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius, Gore says progress made in the lead-up to and during the conference was significant.

In particular, he welcomed:

  • A commitment in the formal agreement for the first time to phase down subsides for coal and fossil fuel (albeit with disappointment that fossil fuel subsidies were not phased out altogether).
  • An acceleration in the timeline for countries to report on progress on commitments made. This will see countries report on progress during the next conference in November this year. By contrast, the first reporting date under the Paris Agreement was five years from the date of the agreement.
  • An agreement by more than 100 countries representing 70 percent of the global economy to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030; and
  • Significant commitments outside the formal agreement from governments, cities, major private sector players and civil society.

Going forward, Gore says engineers should respond in two ways.

First, ongoing advocacy is critical.

Restricting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius is achievable only if the right policies are in place, Gore says.

Moreover, Gore says commitments made before and during the conference demonstrated the impact of people using their voices.

Before COP 26, Gore says global temperatures were expected to increase by 2.7 degrees Celsius even if all commitments were met. Following Glascow and commitments made beforehand, temperature rise is expected to be restricted to 1.8 degrees Celsius if all commitments are met.

Beyond this, engineers should seek to embed sustainability into their work.

“It is important for all of you for engineers across Australia and around the world to incorporate climate solutions that we already have in hand into your work now and to help drive innovation to promote new solutions across all areas of our society,” Gore said.

Your work is at the ground floor of the sustainability revolution that I have described. With your help, we can drive the ubiquitous development of solar, wind, electric vehicles, batteries and hyper efficiency.

“We must deploy these technologies with speed and at scale. But we must do so in a way that ensures reliability. So we need your expertise so that we can proactively drive this transition in a way that also provides opportunities for those who have relied upon the fossil fuel infrastructure for their jobs and for their livelihoods.

“We can address this crisis. We know what to do.

“You can help bring forward thinking to the infrastructure and the construction projects that you are working on right now and those that you will soon be working on.

“I encourage all of you, to use your voices, your votes, your choices and of course your expertise in engineering to drive action.”