How engineers can help build a more sustainable world

4 Mar 2021

Image: © tonefotografia/

Every industry must play a role in creating a sustainable future. To mark Engineers Week, we found out more about how engineers can contribute.

Read more Engineers Week stories.

While Engineers Week kicked off last weekend, today (4 March) marks World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development, a UNESCO international day to highlight the achievements of engineers and engineering in the area of sustainability.

Speaking at an Engineers Ireland’s conference in October last year, President Michael D Higgins told the remote audience: “Engineers have a clear role to play to ensure that everyone in the world has access to clean water, sanitation, reliable energy, and safeguarded from climate change’s adverse impacts which are already manifesting.”

A 2020 Engineers Ireland report found that almost three-quarters (74pc) of the Irish public surveyed believe engineers have an ethical obligation to tackle the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. But how does this ethical obligation translate into real action for those working within the engineering profession?

Maurice Buckley, president of Engineers Ireland and executive chair of the Office of Public Works (OPW), told that engineers can work to deliver projects that benefit a more sustainable world.

“Our approach to sustainability includes the resilience of our built and natural environment in the face of extreme weather, the need to reduce emissions related to our buildings, vehicles and infrastructure, biodiversity protection and enhancement, and achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.”

‘We must build resilience to climate change into all our infrastructural investment now’

The World Federation of Engineering Organisations, one of Engineer Ireland’s international partners, has highlighted the need for engineers to lead the way on goals for clean water and sanitation, reliable energy, sustainable infrastructure, manufacturing, innovation and education.

“In the midst of the pandemic, we have a unique opportunity to make significant and lasting changes to reduce emissions, improve our environment, and to slow climate change,” Buckley said. “It is a time of huge societal change, brought about by the pandemic, and a time of change is always a time of opportunity.”

‘Greatest challenge ever faced’

Buckley added that while the world is understandably focused on the Covid-19 pandemic, the impacts of the climate crisis have the potential to be far more consequential for humanity.

“The climate change and biodiversity crisis now are in effect. [This is] a call-to-action for engineers of all ages and disciplines in Ireland and across the world to use their ingenuity and problem-solving abilities to tackle the greatest challenge ever faced by modern humanity,” he said.

“We must build resilience to climate change into all our infrastructural investment now, as well as working with countries all around the globe to reduce emissions and mitigate the change. In the OPW, for example, we are working to design and build defences to protect people and properties from flooding.

“The OPW work with data and models produced by the IPCC, which sees a one-meter sea-level rise as a realistic high-end scenario corresponding to a 1.5-degree global warming. For a three-degree temperature rise, it is possible the sea-level could rise by twice as much with devastating consequences.

“That is why we in Engineers Ireland declared a climate change and biodiversity emergency in early 2020. That is also why we must use the impetus of recovery stimulus now to make the right long-term sustainable investment choices.”

As previously discussed during’s Sustainability Week, one of the critical factors when battling the climate crisis is effective communication.

With this in mind, Engineers Ireland has launched a Sustainability Grand Tour, which aims to educate and empower engineers across all sectors to be drivers of climate action in their own networks and champion the principles and practices of sustainable development.

The online series of events comprises webinars and panel discussions through to the end of April. They will focus on topics ranging from road design to sustainable housing and energy efficient design.

Dr William Finnegan is a research fellow and adjunct lecturer in the School of Engineering at NUI Galway. He also works as part of the sustainable and resilient structures research group at the SFI-backed Marine and Renewable Energy Ireland (MaREI) centre, where his research has mainly focused on developing engineering solutions for renewable energy systems.

He said the Sustainability Grand Tour has had more than 1,500 attendees across its events so far.

“Events such as the Sustainability Grand Tour provide an insight into how sustainable development can be achieved, along with providing case study examples of projects already underway in this country,” Finnegan added.

“It is hoped that attendees can take inspiration from these presentations and incorporate the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals into their projects.”

The Sustainability Grand Tour events are free to attend and those interested can register here.

Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic