Environmental engineers needed to clinch net-zero’s net gains

Environmental engineers have a crucial role to play in reducing carbon emissions and mapping the journey of sustainable transformation.

Female environmental engineer in hard had and high vis, holding ipad and site designs at hydropower plant

The challenges the world faces on its quest to decarbonise will deepen our focus on environmental engineering, as the discipline applies its expertise to the mitigation of climate impacts and improved carbon neutrality.

The years to 2030 and beyond should also provide opportunities for the profession to address misperceptions about the true scope of environmental engineering in practice.

“Most people really do not know what environmental engineers do,” Dan Wittliff, MD of Environmental Services at GDS Associates, said in a much-quoted comment. “They hear ‘environmental engineer’, and they think ‘environmentalist’.”

Too often, environmental engineers are designated almost as ancillaries to other branches of the engineering sector, called in to help resolve situations inside the ‘big four’ branches of engineering – chemical, civil, electrical and mechanical.

The road to net-zero

International carbon control initiatives, however, such as the European Commission’s Climate Target Plan, the COP26 emissions reductions targets, and the 2030 Challenge, which aim to bring about more carbon neutrality by the end of this decade, will help elevate the status of environmental engineers and recognise their contribution to quality-of-life improvements.

Such mandates will – directly and indirectly – boost demand for environmental engineers by drawing investment into their market sectors. A broad range of environmental engineering skills will be needed to tackle a boundless spectrum of emergent environmental concerns. Research and Markets expect the global environmental consulting services market value to reach $93.61bn in 2026, with a compound annual growth rate of 10.4%.

“Environmental engineers are at the core of the sustainable transformation needed in climate change mitigation and adaptation”

Says Monica Welander, Group Head of Sustainability Communications at Sweco. “By securing good air and water quality, developing circular material flows, cutting emissions in infrastructure and constructions, and developing renewable energy solutions, environmental engineers are major facilitators of the roadmap to net-zero.”

A multidisciplinary role

Leading engineering teams embrace multidisciplinary know-how as a standard. It's a requirement that’s extending the remit of environmental engineers beyond traditional practitioner parameters. Their expertise increasingly calls for polymathic knowledge of related sciences – biology, chemistry, ecology, engineering, geology, hydraulics, hydrology, mathematics and microbiology, to name but a few.

Furthermore, environmental engineering is often tasked with finding answers to engineering’s sustainability challenges on two fronts – inventing new solutions while at the same time remediating legacy problems.

The building and construction sector provides instructive examples. Around 43m new homes will be required each year globally between 2020 and 2030, a report by Global Construction Perspectives predicts 11m in India, 7m in China, 2m in Nigeria and 1.5m in the US. Brazil, Pakistan and Indonesia are also each expected to require more than 1m new homes every year.

IET/Women’s Engineering Society Prize winner Eftychia Koursari, a Senior Civil Engineer at Amey Consulting, believes the role of all engineers is increasingly crucial in achieving global net-zero objectives.

Building and retrofitting

“Buildings and construction account for approximately 40% of UK carbon emissions in the UK, and the construction sector contributes 11% of global carbon emissions,” says Koursari. “All engineers need to find solutions and alternatives to reduce these emissions.”

Environmental engineers are developing construction materials, such as glass-based eco-concrete and eco-blocks made of fused plastic waste, from which the homes of the future could be built. It is of course imperative that the construction of these new homes adheres to energy efficiency standards, and environmental engineers will play an integral role in ensuring this.

They will also need to be involved in improving the energy performance of our existing buildings. In Europe, nearly 35% of buildings are 50+ years old, and almost 75% of building stock is classified as being energy inefficient, the European Commission has reported.

This means that the vast majority of buildings within the EU will require renovation as part of net-zero initiatives. Knowledge and understanding of regulatory compliances that apply here is another area that environmental engineers are best placed to tackle.

As well as working alongside other engineering categories, environmental engineers can also enhance their value proposition by joining forces with professional disciplines such as the social sciences, as part of cross-sector net-zero initiatives.

Making a difference

“Moving society in a more sustainable direction calls for ‘cross-border’ collaborations between professional disciplines in order to manage the complexity and urgency of the transition toward net-zero,” says Welander. “Experts with different knowledge and experience gather to take advantage of innovation and technology, with the goal to design and develop sustainable environments and communities from all dimensions – environmentally, socially and economically.”

Cross-sector processes that foster policy coherence are needed to achieve global decarbonisation, agrees Koursari:

“It’s imperative that engineering works with other professional disciplines as part of net-zero initiatives.”

“The ongoing societal challenges in managing climate change are both triggers and motivators for young professionals who actively seek career paths where they can have a positive and immediate impact on the society,” says Welander.

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