Q: At the fall of 2021 at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), dozens of countries will discuss how to reduce net carbon emissions to zero by 2050. What can engineers contribute to that net zero goal?
Anderson: I think it takes a lot. Every part of life should reduce energy consumption.
We need to replace some carbon fuels with renewable energy, which is slowly but surely happening. The sun was very expensive 30 years ago, and now it is becoming more cost-effective. One step that engineers can take is to use renewable energy in residential and high-rise buildings. There are great efforts to design high altitudes with wind turbines and solar panels.
And we need to improve efficiency – to make everything we use more efficient, such as refrigerators and cars. One important goal is to reduce energy use in production. Manufacturing consumes about 25% of energy in the United States, so we need to look for more energy efficient ways to produce finished metals, cement and other products.
Another way engineers can help reduce CO2 emissions is to control it – to properly store and store CO2 from power sources to prevent it from entering the atmosphere. Studies are looking at ways to make trees and other plants more efficient, such as natural carbon sinks.
And if we don’t do more with nuclear power, there will be no zero-to-zero by 2050. NAE is currently researching advanced nuclear power plants: Build safer, smaller power plants, and better integrate with modern grids.
We will discuss some of these issues at the NAE Annual Meeting.
Q: Engineers are urged to think about fairness in their work on climate change. What are some examples of fairness in the effects of climate change, and how can engineering decisions exacerbate or reduce them?
Anderson: In general, people living in poverty live in areas where no one wants to live — in low-lying areas, and in old buildings that need to be rehabilitated. That’s where some injustice comes in.
An important step in reducing inequality is to prevent flooding and hurricanes and to rebuild when we are better able to rebuild – and to ensure that it does not rebuild in dangerous places where you know it will happen again. Electricity and drinking water are important for everyone. That is what we as engineers and citizens and political leaders need to focus on. That means designing systems that protect those things.
Q: Do you think the higher education system is doing enough to make young engineers think about fairness in their work? Are engineering programs different?
Anderson – Speech and project teaching ethics has been introduced in most engineering colleges across the country and requires certification. However, much more can always be done.
I have argued that we should include more social sciences in engineering programs. It is important that we seek more ethical ideas in engineering practice. I do not mean to check the box “I took a course in psychology or sociology.” I mean, social science and engineering educators work together on courses, so engineers take things into account when designing something – what are the unintended consequences of this? Some unintended consequences have to do with the spread of injustice, especially poverty.
Q: What kind of work is NAE doing right now on climate change?
Anderson: We’re doing a lot of things. For example, NAE has set up a business advisory committee – a group of current or former technical executives representing the pharmaceutical, petrochemical, IT, transportation and other industries. In order to mitigate climate change, the committee set up a task force to work with national academies to assess energy production and utilization issues.
We, under the leadership of one of those technical leaders, will begin the process of reducing carbon footprint and using small materials for construction and daily living around businesses and sustainable livelihoods. Sustainability engineering will be the focus of our focus for the next several years.
In fact, many NAE members participate in various national academy studies on climate change. In my discussions with our members, climate change became one of the most important challenges we had to deal with – with epidemics.