With Engineers Australia’s accreditation to the United Nations major environment organisations this month, a world of possibility has opened up to Australia’s engineers.
Engineers Australia has secured accreditation to formally observe and engage in the core business of the United Nations’ (UN) most influential environmental organisations.
“The door is now open for Engineers Australia to input its engineering-led views on issues affecting the operationalisation of almost 30 international treaties stewarded by these UN organisations,” says Engineers Australia’s Head, Climate Smart Engineering Mark Bonner.
These organisations collectively define the global landscape of climate- and sustainability-related agendas, he says. Their agendas also heavily influence Australia’s domestic policy settings in response to its legally binding commitments under those various treaties.
“There are two key things that come out of this,” says Engineers Australia National President, Dr Nick Fleming FIEAust CPEng. “One is that it signals the significance of the climate crisis and the role of engineering in providing solutions.”
“The second is our ability to remain at the forefront of the global conversation around climate. It gives us a depth of insight that’s unquestionably useful, including current thinking around technologies.”
What are the UN bodies?
Engineers Australia’s accreditation is to the UNEA, UNEP and the UNFCCC; collectively these represent the world’s peak decision-making bodies on the environment.
The UNEA sets the global environmental agenda in cooperation with UN institutions and international environmental treaties. It puts environmental issues at the heart of global cooperation including supporting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The UNEA serves as the governing body of the UNEP. For the past 50 years, the UNEP has been the global authority on the environment, promoting the implementation of environmentally sustainable decision-making and actions within the UN system. It also serves as an authoritative advocate for the global environment.
Finally, the UNFCCC, with its ratification by 197 countries, has as its ultimate aim to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere to a level that prevents dangerous human interference with the climate system.
“The UNFCCC’s 2015 Paris Agreement remains the most significant development in international action on climate change to date,” Bonner says. “It provides the global platform in which the international community comes together to commit to acting meaningfully to combat climate change.”
“The international rules underpinning the Agreement, which will continue to evolve, fundamentally determine the direction of global capital investments, the role of carbon markets, the nature of global technology development and deployment, as well as other elements.”
Bonner also notes the accreditation will provide Australian engineers with the opportunity to engage in the business of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
How global insight becomes action
The finest science in the world won’t help if it doesn’t translate efficiently into action. That’s where engineers come in, Fleming says.
Those global discussions at the UN level will directly influence the quality of the decisions we’re making on the ground in Australia.
“As a nation and as engineering professionals, we need to become much smarter in our practical applications around resilience,” Fleming says.
“Resilience means having the capacity to accommodate and recover from extreme events. It may mean having extra capacity and features in our engineered systems than we need on a normal day. It is a form of insurance.”
“We need to have a mature conversation about the effects on operational efficiency and what, as a nation, we’re prepared to invest in.”
Having access to the highest level of scientific knowledge won’t buy us a level of resilience, but it will help us to implement the right solutions, Fleming says. It will also enable better conversations between Engineers Australia and domestic organisations involved in infrastructure, energy and other engineering-related fields.
Sustainability demands biodiversity
The other powerful link from the UN to Australian engineers and scientists is around biodiversity, Fleming says.
“Sustainability requires an understanding of the role of biodiversity,” he says. “The investment community is starting to recognise biodiversity as natural capital that has an economic value. This is not a new conversation, but it is one that major institutional investors are starting to acknowledge.”
“Engineering sectors can have significant effects on biodiversity and thus a key role in its restoration.”
“So, for example, we can protect floodplains and wetlands that provide clean water, flood protection, and sustain ecosystems that offer a variety of tourism, food production and other value services. Or we can continue to undermine and diminish those systems.”
A more mature connection between engineered systems and biodiversity, Fleming says, will benefit from the science and insight provided by the UN.
Engineers Australia’s global role
Where does Engineers Australia fit in, now that it has been welcomed into the UN’s environmental policy dialogue?
Engineers Australia’s responsibilities will be both domestic and global.
“It is clear that these accreditations empower Engineers Australia to continue expressing its engineering-voice to inform and positively shape global and domestic environmental agendas and policy decisions,” Bonner says.
“Engineers Australia will leverage these high-quality opportunities to advocate for engineering relevance more effectively in rules-setting and policy-making processes. It will represent the profession in formal consultation processes and lead engineering delegations in key discussions.”
Our role as engineers, Fleming says, is to advance society through great engineering.
“We can’t afford for all of this to take another generation,” Fleming says. “At Engineers Australia, if we’re not enabling the advancement of society, we’re not fulfilling our purpose.”