Engineering for growth: the road to net zero
With the race on to reach net zero by 2050, the engineering industry is at the very heart of a green economy. We explore how the hard graft needed to bring about a low carbon economy falls to the industry and what lies ahead.
When COP26 set 2050 as the year by which countries should reduce their CO2 emissions to net zero, it altered the course of engineering. Carbon reduction had already been one of the industry’s greatest challenges, but now engineers have a common end point. As a result, initiatives geared to achieving net zero objectives are fast becoming one of the biggest cross-sector motivators in engineering practice, driving both professional aspiration and practical innovation.
Charting the road to 2050 will provide opportunities for engineers at all career stages to contribute to decarbonisation at scale, with net zero initiatives seeing them working together in new ways. Climate change imperatives also expand the industry’s embrace of corporate environmental responsibility as a compelling aim. And it will require engineers to collaborate with technologists to leverage the power of advanced applications in computer science, such as AI. According to the World Economic Forum, for instance, AI tools will enable us to measure and reduce emissions for a given institution, enable innovative carbon-sensitive business models and help improve societal resilience to climate hazards.
“The challenge of achieving net zero requires changes to our whole system and engineers will be critical to all of them,” says Dr Lucy Martin, Deputy Director for Cross-Council Programmes at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation.
Spearheading green economy transformations
Almost every aspect of meeting net zero targets within the next three decades – and many governmental aims towards 2030 – will require engineers and engineering technicians, agrees Dr Rhys Morgan, Director of Engineering and Education at the Royal Academy of Engineering. He says: “From major infrastructure like carbon capture and storage, offshore wind and building new nuclear power stations, to consideration of how we heat and insulate our homes, engineering skills will play a key role in the green economy.”
The onus of carbon change agency is most evident in the global energy sector. Here, much existing infrastructure must be re-engineered to support low carbon energy sources. It includes relatively new renewable energy infrastructure, which will be refitted with engineered solutions already under development, to offer improved efficiency. This includes robust wind turbine blades and smart sign technology that can help solar energy harvesting.
Engineers must also develop and deploy brand-new infrastructure in order to achieve net zero targets – infrastructure that’s designed specifically for low carbon fuels, and their distribution and consumption. Green hydrogen is a prime example of this, as an emergent fuel for heating, industry and transport. Hydrogen has the potential to act as both an energy store and an energy vector – gas turbines converted to hydrogen can provide additional flexibility.
However, it’s not simply a matter of pumping hydrogen through existing pipes that were built for natural gas, although using at least some of the installed network is feasible, engineering experts suggest.
In the UK, for example, National Grid’s Project Union initiative, launched in May 2022, aims to repurpose around 25% of the country’s installed gas pipelines to create a hydrogen transmission ‘backbone’ by the 2030s, and connect to the proposed European Hydrogen Backbone. National Grid estimates that when complete, Project Union could meet 25% of UK gas demand for homes and businesses.
Addressing this and other transitional challenges, while keeping transformative projects within manageable carbon footprint limits, will be one of the factors investing the job of engineering with special purpose and status.
Initiatives in this area must consider the impact of technology change across longer time scales – including thinking beyond the end-of-life of a given engineered product, says Stephanie Baxter, Senior Policy Lead for Innovation and Skills at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).
“It’s essential that the longer-term impacts of any new technology, innovation and economy are considered, that resilience and adaptation are built in,” she explains. “Any view of the long term must consider the ethical implications and impact on future generations incurred by engineering decisions made in 2022.”
’Make a difference’ motivation
Today’s engineers will carry forward their desire to ‘make a difference’. It’s part of a broader aspirational trend that can be found across the STEM sectors. For instance, in a survey by our parent company SThree, How the STEM World Works, 35% of respondents agreed that the opportunity to make a difference was the factor that most influenced their decision to pursue a career in STEM.
“People’s motivations for work are changing – for both younger and older workers,” says Morgan. “Individuals are looking for something different in their careers – something where they can make a difference.”
Baxter adds: “Engineering is a diverse, creative and exciting career, which offers the opportunity to change lives, and even the world. We know that engineering can provide direct solutions to some of the biggest challenges and make that all-important difference. More and more young people see a career in engineering as a way in which they can shape the world around them by working on challenges that meet the needs of their generation – and open up an exciting future.”
The ability to directly impact improvements to our natural environment and increase the resilience of our critical infrastructures, as well as securing economic benefit, is a huge motivator, says the EPSRC’s Martin: “We need to capitalise on this to draw the best talent into engineering net zero solutions.”
Increasingly, this expectation is global in outlook, explains Baxter. “Sustainable engineering is not just a national issue – engineers work on projects that have an impact across borders, so it’s vital that global impacts are considered,” she says. “Engineers [across all sectors] need to work with partners and stakeholders beyond national borders to reach the world’s developing economies.”
The Royal Academy of Engineering, for example, maintains a range of support programmes that help consolidate engineering capacity in low and middle-income nations around the world and contribute to their economic development and social welfare.
“Advanced economies have the resources and the capability to develop innovations that will help meet our net zero aims across the globe,” says Morgan. “While some of these solutions will be in the public domain and free to share, others will be developed by private companies. There is going to be a balance between enabling developing countries to use these technologies and solutions, and allowing for-profit businesses to make money from their innovations.”
With the race on to decarbonise, there has never been a more exciting time to work in engineering.
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