The World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development is celebrated worldwide on 4th March of every year (https://worldengineeringday.net/about-wed/). As an engineering professor and chair of Sustainable Manufacturing TC at the Institution of Engineers Singapore, it is my privilege to write this blog on further development of engineering field for sustainable development as well as transition of world’s linear economies into circular economies or low-carbon economies (Lerwen and Seeram Ramakrishna, 2021). This is in line with the theme of WED2021- “Engineering for A Healthy Planet”. Engineers to work for the progress, people and planet in modern times.
Recent surveys elicit perceptions such as green washing by the businesses, companies and governments; companies and organizations embellish environmental, social and governance, ESG reports; engineers, designers and innovators do not factor sustainability considerations while generating solutions, services and products for the market; sinister business practice known as designed and predetermined obsolescence; sustainability considerations lead to increased business costs; and humans got used to prioritizing convenience and consumerism over sustainability thus leading to resources depletion and adversely impacting the environment.
For example, according to an estimate the global human made mass now exceeds the total biomass on planet Earth (lhacham et al, 2020). In other words, undue stress on the Earth’s environment and ecosystem by excessive human activities. They underscore the importance of reimagining all human actions responsibility to the Earth and it’s all beings. This includes reimaging all products and services with sustainability lens.
Recognising that human behaviour can be tuned by inculcating values and habits at younger age, more than 7,000 higher and further education institutions from around the world declared climate emergency in 2019, and pledged to a three-point plan (UN Environment, 2021). Firstly, committing to going carbon neutral by 2030 or 2050 at the very latest; secondly, mobilizing more resources for action-oriented climate change research and skills creation; and thirdly, increasing the delivery of environmental and sustainability education across curricula, campus and community outreach programmes. It is to be noted that innovative engineering and technology solutions are just as important as changing human behaviour in ensuring a healthy planet. Hence, estimated more than twenty five million engineers around the world are critical for achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Moreover, they need to embrace the culture and mind set of developing and implementing sustainability solutions ubiquitously so as to mitigate and adapt to climate change and its outcomes of extreme weather events such as floods, forest fires, draught, temperatures, rising sea levels and erratic seasons. In addition, engineers should team up with other stakeholders to make the low carbon products and services as the new normal.
Sustainability cuts across all sectors of society. Scientific research and prior adequate preparations have shown how the detrimental consequences of extreme weathers and climate change can be avoided. It is to be recognised that generating sustainability solutions require interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, cross-disciplinary and co-production approaches instead of the current practice of mono-disciplinary pursuits (Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, 2021; Jose and Ramakrishna, 2021; Norström et al 2021). In addition, the engineering education should provide deeper hands on experience in doing the actual projects with sustainability considerations as opposed to students merely listening to lectures and reading text books. It is also important to infuse ethics and humanities into the engineering projects and education.
UN Sustainable Development Goal, SDG 11 is about sustainable cities and communities. About half of the world population now lives in cities, and by 2050 nearly two thirds of all humans projected to live in cities. Cities contribute about 80 percent of the global GDP. They are responsible for 70 percent of global carbon emissions and energy consumption. Hence sustainable development cannot be realised without paying significant attention to the urban communities (UNDP, 2021). Comprehensive actions by all the stakeholders of cities is necessary for transition to sustainable cities and communities. Examples are helpful to convince the climate risk sceptics who are reluctant to make difficult ecological choices. Hence, let us take the example of Singapore, which is an island city-state with minimal agriculture and home to more than 5.7 million residents (Ghomi et al, 2021).
Singapore is among the world leading places in terms of longer healthy life span, per capita income, PISA score (International Student Assessment, PISA by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD), home to world-class universities, number of researchers per million population, internet speed, economic competitiveness, innovation index, entrepreneurial index, low unemployment rate, density of greenery, 100% population served by modern sanitation, and 100% collection & treatment of waste water. As a signatory of Paris Agreement, Singapore adopted a range of strategies to reduce carbon emissions across all sectors of economy which include (i) improving energy efficiency; (ii) reducing carbon emissions from power generation; (iii) developing and deploying cutting-edge low-carbon technologies; and (iv) collective action among government agencies, individuals, businesses, and the community. In addition, the ‘smart nation’ program is aimed at universal access to secure and high speed information and communication technologies. Not satisfied with own progress and deeply understanding diverse climate risks which include rising sea levels and temperatures, on 10 February 2021 Singapore responded with Singapore Green Plan 2030 to recover from the fallout of COVID19 and to chart an even more sustainable future. Five key pillars of the proposed green plan are (1) City in Nature- increase the nature park’s land area by 50 percent. (2) Sustainable Living- reduce waste sent to the landfill per capita a day by 20 percent, and at least one in five schools to be carbon neutral and the rest follow thereafter. Infrastructure to facilitate less carbon intensive mobility of people. In other words, developing sustainable, resilient and inclusive infrastructures. (3) Energy Reset- increase use of solar energy fivefold. Power all water treatment systems with solar energy while reducing the energy consumption of desalination. Diversify electricity supply with clean electricity imports. Green 80% of Singapore buildings. All cars to be cleaner-energy models determined by the life cycle sustainability analysis. (4) Green Economy- transform petrochemical complex into a sustainable energy and chemicals park so as to align and upgrade industrial value chain and infrastructures for sustainability. Make industrial production processes and energy usage greener and improve energy & resources efficiency. In other words, promote sustainable and inclusive industrialisation. Singapore to be a carbon services hub and a leading centre for green finance and sustainability-themed securities in Asia, which increases availability and access to financial services and markets. This also facilitates sustainable infrastructure development for developing countries. (5) Resilient Future- complete formulation of engineering design and implementation plans for coastal adaptation to mitigate rising sea levels. Mitigation targets against urban heat island effect. Meet 30 percent of Singapore food and nutritional needs through locally produced food. It is a sustainable solution to overcome broken supply chains caused by the COVID19 measures of countries. In other words, Singapore is seeking to harness sustainability and low carbon economy as a competitive advantage in the years ahead. Green Singapore to lead the way for new life styles.
According to a survey, consumer attitudes are changing and more than 70 percent of global consumers say that they would definitely or probably change their habits to reduce their impact on the environment (Nielsen Report, 2020). ESG rated companies recorded better performance than the average S&P 500 company. Building on this backdrop, the engineering research and innovation efforts are to be aimed at low carbon alternatives so as to help companies to upgrade industrial technologies with better sustainability credentials and adopt sustainable practices. Such efforts will boost local technology expertise as well as industrial diversification. This includes developing new sustainability solutions for packaging, low carbon design of products & services, materials selection & substitution with renewables, waste management- reduction, refurbish, reuse, recycling, upcycling, remanufacturing, recovery of resources & valorisation, urban farming, and conservation of resources. New technologies such as carbon capture, utilization and storage, and low-carbon hydrogen to be test bedded and scaled up. Many governments taken simplified approach of advocating electric vehicles (EVs) as an expedient green transport policy. It is important to conduct systematic and transparent life cycle sustainability analysis so as to determine which transport vehicles are truly cleaner and greener models. Design thinking for sustainability to pervade all products, services and businesses. In other words, embrace design thinking with end of life management in mind, and to facilitate durability and ease of maintenance and repair. Moreover, engineering solutions are essential to progress the UN SDGs aimed at (A) providing clean water, clean energy, clean air and nutritional food for all humans. (B) Designing, developing and deploying resilient infrastructure to mitigate extreme weather events and climate change. (C) Sustainable economic development infrastructures such as transportation systems, dams, waste management, water supply and sanitation, power supply, and digital networks in all countries.
In a hard way, various governments around the world have realised that they cannot eradicate Covid19 pandemic by just eliminating it in respective countries alone. Each and every country needs to work in concert with others to eradicate the disease. Likewise, the climate change and environmental degradation are concerns of everyone which need to be mitigated at the very source as well as globally. COVID19 is an acute problem. Humans engineered vaccines within 9 months by employing science and technology advances. Climate change and environmental degradation are problems accumulated over years. Hence, much more sustained efforts are to be carried out by all nations while harnessing the science, engineering and technology.
The ongoing COVID19 crisis reinforced the critical importance of prior adequate preparations for effectively dealing with the challenges, among them is the climate change impact on life on planet Earth, and no country is capable of mitigating climate risks alone. Such aspects have been overlooked by all countries regardless of their stage of development. Henceforth, all countries have to sincerely embrace sustainability and low carbon economy or circular economy agenda while cooperating with each other. All countries need to progress on the SDGs for more prosperous, equitable and resilient future for all and to engineer a healthy planet.
- Lerwen Liu and Seeram Ramakrishna (2021), An Introduction to Circular Economy, Springer Singapore, DOI 10.1007/978-981-15-8510-4, 630 pages, eBook ISBN 978-981-15-8510-4.
- lhacham, E., Ben-Uri, L., Grozovski, J. et al (2020) Global human-made mass exceeds all living biomass. Nature. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-3010-5.
- UN Environment (2021) https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/press-release/higher-and-further-education-institutions-across-globe-declare.
- Elena Rodriguez-Falcon (2021). Where I work. 356 | Nature | Vol 590 | 11 February 2021
- Jose, R., and Ramakrishna, S (2021) Comprehensiveness in the Research on Sustainability. Mater Circ Econ3, 1 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s42824-020-00015-x.
- Norström, A.V., Cvitanovic, C., Löf, M.F. et al. “Principles for knowledge co-production in sustainability research.” Nat Sustain 3, 182–190 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0448-2.
- UNDP (2021). https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals/goal-11-sustainable-cities-and-communities.html.
- Ghomi Rezvani et al.Circular Economy: A comparison between the Case of Singapore and France. Mater Circ Econ 3, 2 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s42824-020-00016-w.
- Nielsen Global Sustainability Report (2020). https://www.nielsen.com/eu/en/insights/article/2019/a-natural-rise-in-sustainability-around-the-world/.
Professor Seeram Ramakrishna, FREng, Everest Chair
Editor-in-Chief, Materials Circular Economy Journal (https://www.springer.com/journal/42824)
UNESCO Global Expert Group member on the Universities & the 2030 Agenda (https://www.uib.no/en/sdgbergen/141236/members-unesco-expert-group).