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"BIOMIMICRY is one of those rare hopeful notes in the modern chorus of environmental warnings."
Jonathon Porritt, Chairman, Chair of the UK Prime Minister's Sustainable Development Commission





Principles and Practices in Sustainable Development for the Engineering and Built Environment Professions 


Unit 1 - Redefining Roles

 

Lecture 1: The Critical Role of Engineering

         

As population and economic growth place increasing pressures on our social and biophysical environment, engineers must accept increased responsibilities to develop sustainable solutions to meet community needs, overcome extreme poverty and prevent segregation of people. The education of engineers needs to inculcate an understanding of sustainability and cultural and social sensitivities as well. The engineering code of ethics must reflect a strong commitment to principles of sustainable development.

World Federation of Engineering Organisations, 2001, Model Code of Ethics.

 
Educational Aim
 

To build on from the material covered in of The Role of Engineering in Sustainable Development A by outlining in more detail the historical changes and trends that have led to the call for sustainable development, and to introduce some of the most critical global efforts, conferences and publications that have informed the discussion. To further help engineers understand the critical role they play to the achievement of sustainable development.

 

Required Reading

Hargroves, K. and Smith, M.H. (2005) The Natural Advantage of Nations: Business Opportunities, Innovation and Governance in the 21st Century, Earthscan, London:

  1. Introduction: Insurmountable Opportunities (4 pages), pp 1-4.

  2. Chapter 1: Natural Advantage of Nations, ‘Progress, Competitiveness and Sustainability’, (5 pages), pp 7-11.

  3. Chapter 2: Risks of Inaction on Sustainable Development (9 pages), pp 34-42.

  4. Chapter 22: Changing Hearts and Minds: The Role of Education. ‘Partnering with Professional Bodies to Build Capacity’, (2 pages), pp 440-441.


Learning Points

* 1. Engineers have been very successful in developing technologies that enable progress and economic prosperity by improving labour productivity; finding new energy sources; designing transportation systems; and enabling the mass import and export of goods over land and sea.

* 2. However, the historically significant scale of human population rise, the spread of consumerism and the speed of technological change around the world is putting increasing pressure on the world’s natural ecosystems. It is ironic that a major limiting factor to current and future progress, and economic prosperity within the next 50 years, will be the decline in the resilience of the Earth’s biological systems, in effect we are destroying the world we are creating.

* 3. In March 2005 the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment,[1] conducted by 1360 experts in 95 nations, was launched. As a result of this report, there is no longer any scientific doubts that close to two thirds of the world’s ecosystems are now in serious decline.

* 4. At the same time, global inequality continues to rise.[2] In his book, Capitalism at the Crossroads,[3] Stuart Hart points out that according to the 1997 UNDP Human Development report,[4] in 1960 the share of global income enjoyed by the wealthiest 20 percent of the world’s people was thirty times larger than the amount shared by the lowest 20 percent. It reached sixty one to one by 1991, seventy-eight to one in 1994. In the 2005 edition of the report[5] it states that while 20 percent of the world’s people live on less than $1 a day, another 20 percent live in nations where people do not think twice about spending $2 on a cappuccino. At the extremes of this imbalance, the 500 richest people in the world have a larger combined income than the poorest 400 million.

* 5. To address the twin challenges of the decline of ecosystem resilience and increasing global inequality, the UN first organised the ‘1972 UN Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment’[6] which was attended by official representatives of 113 nations. Despite this conference’s success, by the early 1980s progress to address these issues had lost momentum. The UN decided to form the UN Commission on Environment and Development chaired by the then Prime Minister of Norway, Gro Brundtland (also know as the Brundtland Commission) to produce a consensus document on sustainable development. This document, published in 1987, was called Our Common Future.[7]

* 6. The work of the Brundtland Commission helped build momentum for the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and attended officially by representatives of over 170 national governments. At this conference a significant document was created, known as Agenda 21,[8] which is a blueprint of how all can play their part to achieve sustainable development globally. Chapter 31 of Agenda 21 covered in detail how scientists and technologists (engineers) have a key role to play to help achieve sustainable development.

* 7. Engineering activities shape the world through their products and process design, and through the management of the technical systems and innovations. Because of this, engineering is uniquely placed to be able to make a significant contribution to achieving sustainable development.


Brief Background Information
 

The practice of ‘engineering’ was developed in a context very different from today. Even 300 years ago we lived in a world with relatively few people and seemingly endless natural resources and abounding ecosystems. The successful development and expansion of towns, cities - and indeed empires and civilisations - was limited by factors including the availability of workers, fuel and energy supply, and the ability to source and transport goods. Engineers were very successful at enabling such progress through developing technologies to improve labour productivity, finding new energy sources, and designing transportation systems to enable the mass import and export of goods over land and sea. Engineering advances to steel and metal, rubber, bridge design, and inventions such as the steam engine underpinned the first industrial revolution.[9]


However the historically significant scale of human population rise, the spread of consumerism and the speed of technological change around the world is putting increasing pressure on the world’s natural ecosystems. A major limiting factor to progress, and economic prosperity within the next 50 years, will be the decline in the resilience of the Earth’s biological systems. Today, there is growing evidence that humanity in many regions and as a whole has overshot nature’s ecological thresholds. Extensive evidence now shows that current economic development paths are environmentally unsustainable. Research has shown that the scale of the human economy now overwhelms many of the Earth’s natural material cycles, such as nitrogen,[10] sulphur,[11] carbon,[12] water,[13] and trace metals.
[14] Humanity is now using up the ecological capital of future generations.[15] Since 1963 there has been a 2.4-fold increase in the material throughput of the global economy[16] and in 2001, humanity’s ecological footprint exceeded the global bio-capacity by 21 percent.[17]


Further evidence that humankind has already overshot the ecological thresholds in many areas of the world’s ecosystems is covered in the results of the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the results of the International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC). In 2001, the IPCC, working with over 3000 atmospheric scientists and modellers, warned that deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions will be needed to avoid dangerous climate change. In 2002 the US National Academies of Science not only endorsed the IPCC’s conclusions but also produced a new report entitled, ‘Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises’, which argued that global warming may trigger large, abrupt and unwelcome regional and global climatic events.’
[18]


Evidence that the resilience of the world’s ecosystems is in serous decline is reported in publications such as the annual The State of the World
[19] reports and the 2003 World Bank Development Report on Sustainable Development in a Dynamic World.[20] At the same time global inequality continues to rise. As Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General, stated in a speech on the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, 17 October 2000, ‘Almost half the world’s population lives on less than two dollars a day, yet even this statistic fails to capture the humiliation, powerlessness and brutal hardship that is the daily lot of the world’s poor.[21] Clearly, current progress to reduce poverty is insufficient.


From this and many other reasons has come the call for sustainable development. Barbara Ward has been credited with being one of the first to use the term sustainable development. Barbara Ward and Rene Dubois in their seminal 1972 book Only One Earth
[22] outlined how poverty and environmental degradation are inextricably interlinked and therefore can only be addressed simultaneously. Ward played a significant role working closely with Maurice Strong, Secretary General of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, to ensure the success of the event. The conference and the book did much to popularise and build political will for sustainable development.


Fundamentally, it will be physically impossible for all developing nations to achieve Western material living standards with previous modes of development and technologies, as the global ‘ecological footprint’
[23] is already greater than the carrying capacity of our planet (See Figure 1.1).


Figure 1.1. Humanity’s Ecological Footprint, 1961-2003
Source: World Wildlife Fund and Global Footprint Network (2006)
[24]

For instance the UNEP (2002) Sustainable Consumption – A Global Status report stated that,[25]

If China were to match the US for levels of car ownership and oil consumption per person it would mean producing approximately 850 million more cars and more than doubling the world output of oil. Those additional cars would produce more CO2 per annum than the whole of the rest of the world’s transportation systems. If China were match US consumption per head of paper, it would need more paper than the world currently produces. If China were to consume seafood at the per capita rate of Japan, it would need 100 million tonnes, more than today’s total catch. If China’s beef consumption was to match the USA’s per capita consumption and if that beef was produced mainly in feedlot, this would take grain equivalent to the entire US harvest.


Significant changes are going to be required to meet individuals and societies’ needs globally in a way that ensures the same opportunity for future generations still to come. The critical role of engineers in the achievement of sustainability has been acknowledged both within and outside of the profession. As Maurice Strong said, ‘Sustainable development will be impossible without the full input by the engineering profession’.


In Agenda 21,
[26] the major document produced by the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in 1992, activities of engineers were included in chapters on human settlements and other specific aspects of sustainable development. Chapter 31 specifically addressed the contribution of science and technology to the promotion of sustainable development and called for the science and engineering professions to develop codes of practice and ethics that implicitly includes recognition of the concerns of sustainable development.


The engineering profession through international bodies such as the World Federation of Engineering Organisations (WFEO) made an active contribution to the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. In September 1991, the WFEO held a meeting of its General Assembly in Arusha, Tanzania. At this meeting WFEO adopted the Arusha Declaration
[27] on the future role of engineering, developed from a study of Our Common Future,[28] (the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development) and other documents. This declaration provided helpful guidelines that could be used by engineers in their projects. Soon after the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Rio Summit), a group of engineers made a systematic analysis of Agenda 21. They found that of the 2500 issues in Agenda 21, 1700 seemed to have engineering or technical implications, and at least 241 appeared to have major engineering implications.


Since 1992 the World Federation of Engineering Organisations (WFEO) and national engineering bodies have responded to the call for sustainable development.
[29] In the early 1990s a number of national engineering institutions responded to this call for action. Taking the Australian Engineering institution as an example, Engineers Australia passed the following motion at the 1993 Annual General Meeting: ‘That Council acknowledge the leadership role the engineering profession must provide in attainment of sustainable development and that Council develop special plans to achieve this leadership role and report progress regularly to the members.’ Later, as a result of this motion, the Institution set up a Task Force on Sustainable Development in 1994. In October of 1994 Council adopted a ‘Policy on Sustainability‘. From 1999 to 2001 Engineers Australia published reports on sustainable energy,[30] transport[31] and built environment issues.[32] Also the Code of Ethics for the Institution was changed to include sustainable development, a process that continues to be updated. The objective of sustainability is reflected in the Tenets and Principles and interpretation of Engineers Australia’s Code of Ethics. Similar such processes were enacted by other national engineering bodies globally. The US National Society of Professional Engineers has incorporated sustainable development specifically into their code of ethics.[33] Also national engineering professional bodies published significant reports outlining in detail ways engineers could assist their nation transition towards sustainability.


In 2001 The World Federation of Engineering Organisation (WFEO) developed a model code of ethics for engineers globally.
[34] In explaining the model codes of ethics WFEO sums up many of the core reasons of why the call for sustainable development matters so much to engineers.


Because of the rapid advancements in technology and the increasing ability of engineering activities to impact on the environment, engineers have an obligation to be mindful of the effect that their decisions will have on the environment and the well-being of society, and to report any concerns of this nature... with the rapid advancement of technology in today's world and the possible social impacts on large populations of people, engineers must endeavor to foster the public's understanding of technical issues and the role of Engineering more than ever before. As population and growth place increasing pressures on our social and biophysical environment, engineers must accept increased responsibilities to develop sustainable solutions to meet community needs, overcome extreme poverty and prevent segregation of people. The education of engineers needs to inculcate an understanding of sustainability and cultural and social sensitivities as well. The engineering code of ethics must reflect a strong commitment to principles of sustainable development... Sustainable development is the challenge of meeting current human needs for natural resources, industrial products, energy, food, transportation, shelter, and effective waste management while conserving and, if possible, enhancing the Earth's environmental quality, natural resources, ethical, intellectual, working and affectionate capabilities of people and socioeconomic bases, essential for the human needs of future generations. The proper observance to these principles will considerably help to the eradication of the world poverty.

WFEO, Code of Ethics, 2001[35]


To further demonstrate their commitment to sustainable development the World Federation of Engineering Organisation has also been very active in helping to develop and review the UN Earth Charter, which WFEO has endorsed. The UN Earth Charter is a comprehensive statement of sustainable development principles endorsed by numerous organisations and parliaments around the world. Finally, there are now regular conferences occurring focusing on education and professional development for engineers in sustainable development.
[36]


 

Key References


- World Federation of Engineering Organisations (WFEO) (n.d.) Overview of Engineering Response at the International Level to the call for Sustainable Development, WFEO. Available at www.iies.es/FMOI-WFEO/desarrollosostenible/main/progress.htm. Accessed 5 January 2007.


- WFEO (1992) Arusha Declaration, adopted by WFEO and submitted to the 1992 UN Conference on Human Development. Accessed 5 January 2007.


- WFEO (2001) Model Code of Ethics, WFEO. Available at www.unesco.org/wfeo/ethics.html. Accessed 5 January 2007.


- American Society for Engineering Education – Engineers Forum on Sustainability and Newsletters, see here and here.

- UNEP (1972) Stockholm Report of the UN Conference on the Human Environment, UNEP, New York. Accessed 5 January 2007.


- UNCED (1992) Rio Declaration of Environment and Development, UNCED, New York. Available at www.un.org/documents/ga/conf151/aconf15126-1annex1.htm. Accessed 5 January 2007.


- UNCED (1992) Agenda 21: United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development, UNCED, New York, Chap 31: Science and Technological Community. Accessed 5 January 2007.


- UN Earth Charter (n.d.) Homepage. Available at www.earthcharter.org/. Accessed 5 January 2007.


- World Watch Institute (n.d.) State of the World reports. Available at www.worldwatch.org/node/1065. Accessed 5 January 2007.

 

Key Words for Searching Online


Ecosystem Services, Sustainable Development, Our Common Future, Agenda 21, World Federation of Engineering Organisations.

 

[1] United Nations (2005) Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Available at http://www.millenniumassessment.org/en/index.aspx. Accessed 5 January 2007). (Back)

[2] See the Eldis Poverty Resource Guide at www.eldis.org/poverty/index.htm. Accessed 5 January 2007. The Eldis Poverty Resource Guide supports the analysis of poverty and related implications of social and economic policies within Africa, Asia and Latin America. (Back)

[3] Hart, S.L. (2005) Capitalism at the Crossroads, Wharton School Publishing, London. (Back)

[4] UNDP (1997) Human Development Report 1997- Human Development to Eradicate Poverty, UNDP, New York. Available at http://hdr.undp.org/reports/global/1997/en/. Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[5] UNDP (2005) Human Development Report 2005- International cooperation at a crossroads: Aid, trade and security in an unequal world, UNDP, New York. Available at http://hdr.undp.org/reports/global/2005/. Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[6] UNEP (1972) Report Of The United Nations Conference On The Human Environment, UNEP, Paris. Available at www.unep.org/Documents.multilingual/Default.asp?DocumentID=97&ArticleID. Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[7] Bruntland, G. (ed.) (1987) Our Common Future: The World Commission on Environment and Development, Oxford University Press, Oxford. This publication is also commonly referred to as the Brundtland Report. (Back)

[8] UNCED (1992) Agenda 21: United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development, UNCED, New York, chap 31. Available at http://earthwatch.unep.net/agenda21/31.php. Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[9] BBC (n.d.) Overview of The First Industrial Revolution. Available at www.open2.net/industrialrevolution/. Accessed 5 January 2006). (Back)

[10] Vitousek, P. M. (1994) ‘Beyond Global warming: Ecology and Global Change’, Ecology 75, pp 1861-1876; Vitousek, P.M. et al. (1997) ‘Human alteration of the global nitrogen cycle: Causes and consequences’, Ecological Applications, vol 7, pp 737-750. (Back)

[11] MacKenzie, J.J. (1997) Oil as a Finite Resource: When is Global Production Likely to Peak?, World Resources Institute, Washington, D.C. (Back)

[12] Houghton, J.T., Filho, L.G.M., Callander, B.A., Harris, N., Kattenberg, A., and Maskell, K., (eds) (1995) The Science of Climate Change, Contribution of Working Group I to the Second Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p 572. (Back)

[13] Postel, S., Daily, G.C. and Erlich, P.R. (1996) ‘Human Appropriation of Renewable Fresh Water’, Science, no. 271, pp 785-88. (Back)

[14] Nriagu, J.O. (1990) ‘Global Metal Pollution: Poisoning the Environment?’, Environment, vol. 32, pp 7-11. (Back)

[15] World Wildlife Fund (2004) Living Planet Report 2004. Available at www.panda.org/livingplanet. Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[16] Gardner, G. and Sampat, P. (1998) Mind over Matter: Recasting the Role of Materials in our Lives, World Watch Paper 144, World Watch Institute, Washington D.C. (Back)

[17] World Wildlife Fund (2004) Living Planet Report 2004. Available at www.panda.org/livingplanet. Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[18] National Academies of Science (2002) Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises Committee on Abrupt Climate Change, National Research Council, National Academy Press, Washington D.C. (Back)

[19] Worldwatch Institute (n.d.) State of the World reports. Available at http://www.worldwatch.org/pubs/sow/. Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[20] World Bank (2003) World Bank Development Report 2003: Sustainable Development in a Dynamic World, Oxford University Press, Oxford. (Back)

[21] Annan, K. (2000) Message of the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, on the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Available at www.un.org/events/poverty2000/messages.htm. Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[22] Ward, B. and Dubois, R. (1972) Only One Earth, Penguin, Hammondsworth, UK. (Back)

[23] The equivalent land and water area required to produce a given population's material standard, including resources appropriated from other places. Co-developed by Dr Mathis Wackernagel. For additional information see the Global Footprint Network at www.footprintnetwork.org. Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[24] Global Footprint Network (2006) Footprint Network News, October 24, 2006. Available at http://www.footprintnetwork.org/newsletters/gfn_blast_0610.html. Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[25] UNEP (2002) Sustainable Consumption – A Global Status Report 2002, UNEP, Paris. (Back)

[26] UNCED (1992) Agenda 21: United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development, UNCED, New York, chap 31. Available at http://earthwatch.unep.net/agenda21/31.php. Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[27] WFEO (1992) Arusha Declaration, statement by WFEO to the UNCED Conference, 1992. Available at http://www.iies.es/FMOI-WFEO/desarrollosostenible/main/assets/ArushaDeclaration.doc. Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[28] Bruntland, G. (ed.) (1987) Our Common Future: The World Commission on Environment and Development, Oxford University Press, Oxford. This publication is also commonly referred to as the Brundtland Report. (Back)

[29] WFEO (n.d.) Engineers and Sustainable Development – Engineering Progress. Available at http://www.iies.es/FMOI-WFEO/desarrollosostenible/main/progress.htm. Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[30] Engineers Australia Sustainable Energy Taskforce (2001) Towards a Sustainable Energy Future: Setting the Directions and Framework for Change, Institution of Engineers of Australia. (Back)

[31] Sustainable Transport Taskforce (1999) Sustainable Transport: Responding To the Challenges, November 1999, Institution of Engineers of Australia. (Back)

[32] Engineers Australia Commercial Buildings Taskforce (2001) Sustainable Energy Innovation in the Commercial Buildings Sector, November 2001, Institution of Engineers of Australia Engineers Australia. (Back)

[33] US National Society of Professional Engineers (n.d.) Code of Ethics. Available at http://www.nspe.org/ethics/eh1-code.asp. Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[34] World Federation of Engineering Organisations (2001) Model Code of Ethics. WFEO. Available at www.unesco.org/wfeo/ethics.html#6. Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[35] Ibid. (Back)

[36] Engineering Education in Sustainable Development (EESD) (2006) International Conference: Translating Sustainability into Concrete Targets, Lyons, France. Available at www.eesd2006.net/. Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

The Natural Edge Project Engineering Sustainable Solutions
Program is supported by the Australian National Commission
for UNESCO through the International Relations Grants
Program of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
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