Former Victorian deputy premier and UN Leadership Council co-chair Professor John Thwaites believes engineers are crucial to the Sustainable Development Goals.
Engineers are “absolutely critical” to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), according to the co-chair of a leadership council established to support their development and implementation.
Monash University Professor John Thwaites, who will give the keynote address at Engineers Australia’s World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development webinar on Thursday 4 March, said engineers are the drivers of sustainability in the world’s cities, infrastructure and energy systems.
Without engineers, he said the world would not be able to meet the economic, environmental or social targets of the SDGs.
Thwaites pointed to the transition to net zero carbon emissions, and said engineers are at the forefront of renewable energy and new forms of transport.
“One of the key goals is building resilient infrastructure and fostering innovation,” he told create.
“Unfortunately, in many countries, including Australia, we’re not investing enough in research and development, and innovation.
“We will rely more and more on engineers in providing those new ideas and new ways of doing things that are going to enable us to continue to prosper, but in an environmentally-sustainable way.”
Blueprint for the planet
The SDGs are a set of 17 global aims agreed by all countries at the United Nations in 2015.
The goals cover economic prosperity, social fairness and environmental sustainability, with targets for 2030.
“They are, really, a to-do list for a better world,” Thwaites said.
Engineers will be very interested in the goals around sustainable energy, resilient infrastructure and sustainable cities, Thwaites said, but he warned that cherry picking a few goals while ignoring others was likely to have major negative implications.
“A lot of engineers may not see that the goal for reducing inequality is core to their work,” he said.
“But unless we have a fairer, more equal society, we’re not going to have a healthy economy.
“So from my perspective, one of the advantages to the goals is that they do help you see the other objectives … that you don’t necessarily consider part of your ordinary, day-to-day work.”
Australia’s report card
Last year, Thwaites led a report that measured Australia’s performance in 56 indicators linked to the SDGs.
With fewer than 10 years left to achieve the targets, Thwaites gives the country a mixed report card.
“Australia is performing very well in health and education, but very poorly in reducing carbon emissions, waste and environmental degradation,” he said.
“Our economic and infrastructure story is mixed.”
Thwaites — the only Australian appointed to the Lancet COVID-19 Commission — said the pandemic had set the world back in some areas.
Beyond the immediate health impact, COVID-19 had exacerbated inequality in most countries.
“It’s the lowest income and poorest people who have been most impacted by COVID-19,” he said.
“Through a greater incidence of the disease, but also more economic impact — so more low income people have lost their jobs than high income.”
Transforming the way we work
At the same time, Thwaites said the pandemic provided an opportunity to reset.
“We’re all thinking now about different ways of working — more flexible work practices, less travel, less commuting time,” he said.
“It’s not only good for families, it also reduces carbon emissions.
“I think there are a lot of things we can learn from the COVID-19 experience to help us in a reset and a transformation of the way we do our work and run our businesses.”
Thwaites believes responsibility for achieving the SDGs lies with everyone.
“National governments have signed up to the goals and they have a responsibility to put in place policies that encourage their implementation,” he said.
“But companies, employers and employees all have an important role in actually achieving the goals.”
The goals represent a universal vision held by people all around the world, Thwaites said.
“And they do provide a framework that businesses and engineering firms can use for planning their future,” he added.
Don’t miss Professor John Thwaites’ keynote address at Engineers Australia’s webinar to mark World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development on Thursday 4 March.