Former Engineers Australia National President Marlene Kanga has an urgent message for the global community: Engineers are absolutely crucial for addressing climate change and for sustainable development.
When Dr Marlene Kanga travelled to New York to attend the United Nations Science Technology and Innovation Forum last month, her goal was for the world to hear how important engineering is to achieving the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs).
That matters because the world has committed to achieving the 17 SDGs by 2030, and right now, the world is not on track to fulfil that commitment.
“We are halfway through the UN’s vision of sustainable development for all, and more than half [the goals] have not been progressed. I think 30 per cent have declined,” Kanga told create.
“We really need to do something different to shift the needle, and I think recognising the role of engineers in developing practical solutions is very important.”
The UN agreed to the SDGs in 2015 to provide an integrated approach that eradicates extreme poverty and takes on climate change while improving health and education, reducing inequality, and spurring economic growth.
Kanga, who has been President of the World Federation of Engineering Organizations and former Engineers Australia National President, participated in four events during the four-day forum, during which she highlighted that the UN’s 2023 Global Sustainable Development report contained just one mention of engineering across its hundreds of pages.
“It’s ironic in that it appears in the context of the role of engineers in addressing the hole in the ozone layer,” Kanga said.
“The hole is shrinking, and is set to disappear by 2066. Ironically, they put that [reference] in a box in a case study on the work of engineers. Yet the whole [report] is about science, not about engineering.”
In the late 1980s, countries agreed to ban the use of chlorofluorocarbons, an inert ingredient used in aerosols and refrigerators.
“It was engineers who then developed alternative refrigerants. These were implemented in buildings and ventilation and air conditioning systems across the world,” Kanga said.
Demand in Africa
The importance of engineering as a tool for achieving sustainable development came through during day one of the forum, which was marked as Science, Technology and Innovation in Africa Day. For this, Kanga chaired a session exploring how frontier technologies can advance the agriculture sector on the continent, particularly in rural areas.
There is a huge demand for engineers in Africa, Kanga said, noting that while nations in the developed world have about 100 engineers per 10,000 people, some African nations have just two.
“The goal from Africa Day in particular was to come together with initiatives that can be delivered on the ground,” she said.
“[Determine] who’s doing what, collate what projects are actually in play at the moment and have been delivered on a smaller scale, bring them all together, get some funding from some foundations, and progress that on a larger scale across the continent.
“This is a positive and practical step forward. It wasn’t just a talkfest.”
Among the challenges the panel considered were sealing roads — just 27 per cent of the roads in Africa are paved — coordinating natural disaster risk management, and expanding access to engineering training through an online portal such as the WFEO Academy, which is led by Kanga.
The panel also hosted two engineers from the continent, including one from Mali who had developed an artificial intelligence app, but was unable to travel to the US.
“He sent a video, which was rather poor quality, and they weren’t going to use it. I said, ‘No, I want to use it’,” Kanga explained.
“It shows young people with so many difficulties and a lack of resources still want to compete there on the world stage and show their intelligence and creativity in developing this app to help farmers.
“And it also shows the dire need for good infrastructure — electronic infrastructure, electricity — and so on. It actually conveyed two messages, and it was really powerful.”
Vision and strategy
Kanga’s presence at the UN forum was supported by Engineers Australia’s Climate Smart Engineering Initiative (CSEI), and she said activities such as CSEI provided the vision and strategy required to help engineers address the challenges involved.
“The Climate Smart Engineering Initiative — and I did talk about this at the UN — provides that kind of structure. We’ve got an [Engineers Australia] strategy and vision, which comes from the top, from the president and CEO,” she said.
“The benefit of the [CSEI], the structured strategic approach, is the focus that it gives on the role of engineers. I think we need to communicate this not just on a global scale but nationally.
“We need our politicians, our community, to understand the role of engineers, how vital they are for our future, and to address climate change in all its aspects.”
Climate Smart Engineering 2023 (CSE23) will be held 29-30 November 2023 at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. Learn more about the conference and register here.