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In this guide to sustainability training for engineering professionals, I'm going to show you how to practice sustainable engineering no matter your specialization or industry.
Here’s what I’ll go over.
What is Sustainable Engineering?
What is Life Cycle Engineering?
What Sustainable Engineering Tools Can Be Used?
The Complete Course Guide to Sustainability Training for Engineering Professionals
Under each section, I’ll list several course topics you should include in your professional development training program. In the last section, you'll find a master list you can use as a roadmap to effective sustainability training.
Let’s dive right in.
Economy, Environment and Society are known as the three pillars of sustainable development.
Sustainability is the balance between economic, environmental and social needs.
SOURCE: Penn State
To determine if a project is sustainable, you must evaluate it against these three pillars.
Below you'll find three checklists, one for each component of sustainability.
Use this checklist as a starting point for assessing the environmental impact of your project.
Or use it to direct your thinking towards sustainability when designing a new product or process.
For a complete list of POPs, see the Stockholm Convention website.
Take professional development courses on these topics to learn more about environmental sustainability.
|Climate Change||Air pollution and solutions|
|Water pollution and solutions||Water efficiency|
|Zero-discharge processes||Sustainable Development Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation|
|Sustainable Development Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy||Sustainable Development Goal 9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure|
|Sustainable Development Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities||Sustainable Development Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production|
|Sustainable Development Goal 13: Climate Action||Toxicology|
|Environmental Assessment of Products and Processes – Measurement and||Renewable Energies|
|Energy Efficiency in products, processes and the built environment|
Sustainability requires us to move beyond our current Take-Make-Break economy and become a Circular Economy. What does this mean?
It means we have to radically change the long-standing paradigm our western economies are founded on. This is what we've been doing so far.
TAKE resources from the Earth,
MAKE them into products and,
Return them to the environment as WASTE
(when they are no longer needed or wanted)
A sustainable economy would connect the two ends of this linear process together to create a circular system.
According to The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular economy would:
Design out waste and pollution
o Did you know that 80% of waste and pollution is a result of decisions made at the design stage?
Keep products and materials in use
o In a circular economy, products are not thrown away.
They are repaired, reused and remanufactured instead. Manufacturers reuse the parts and materials of products that are at the end of their useful life and offer repair contracts to end customers.
o In a circular economy, shop windows display services, not products.
Cars, lights, washing machines are all available as services in the new economy. Instead of acquiring physical assets, customers pay monthly fees to have access to transportation, lighting and clean laundry. The actual machinery belongs to the manufacturers, who are incentivized to make them durable and energy-efficient.
Regenerate natural systems
o The circular economy strives to improve the environment. Some examples include:
- Recovering nutrients critical to plant health from agricultural waste and closing the loop by using them to produce natural fertilizers.
- Converting waste generated by livestock into environmentally benign fertilizer and biogas.
To make the circular economy a reality, engineers must design products and processes in a way that safeguards the environment, enables easy repairs and uses resources efficiently.
Here is a checklist to help you start thinking about the circular economy as you design your product or process.
Take professional development courses on these topics to learn more about developing a sustainable economy.
Industrial Symbiosis, Industrial Ecology
|Life-Cycle Thinking and Assessment||Internet-of-Things|
|Design for Reuse, Repair, Remanufacture, Recycle||Systems Thinking|
Although I began this article with the Sustainability Venn diagram, which shows the three pillars of sustainability as overlapping circles, the image below actually gives a better understanding of why we should strive to achieve sustainability.
This simple representation of our world shows us that Nature contains human society, which, in turn, builds economies. Since societies grow economies, if society deteriorates, then the economy will inevitably deteriorate as well.
This type of thinking helps us to understand that sustainability involves addressing complex problems involving many interdependent variables. A systematic approach to solving these problems is Systems Thinking. Systems Thinking allows us to zoom out from the details and see the causes and effects of our actions on Nature, Society and the Economy.
The entire life-cycle is considered when assessing the social impact of a product, and this, for all stakeholders including:
This Handbook for Product Social Impact Assessment is a detailed guide for measuring the social impact of your product.
Ultimately, engineers should strive to create a GREEN ECONOMY that:
(Source: UNEP, 2011)
1. Is low or zero carbon-emitting
2. Uses green energy and environmentally friendly materials
3. Reduces waste and inefficiencies
4. Develops renewable energy and waste recovery systems
5. Improves the recovery and recycling of scarce resources such as metal ores and water
6. Closes the manufacturing cycle
7. Uses less polluting raw materials and processes
8. Integrates by-products into the production value chain
9. Employs life cycle thinking to extend the life of manufactured products
10. Recognizes that forests are essential and takes measures to protect ecosystems by providing watershed services related to flow regulation, flood protection, and water treatment. The green economy realizes that forests also serve as a source of genetic materials, and cultural services.
11. Removes inequities in water provision. The social and economic costs of water scarcity are removed.
So how are we doing on the social front?
According to a 2011 report by UNEP entitled "Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development andPoverty Eradication - A Synthesis for Policy Makers", we are a long way away from being in a green economy.
Countries with high standards of living have developed their economies to the detriment of their natural resource base.
o In the pursuit of their economic goals, they failed to acknowledge that their industrial greenhouse gas emissions could cause great damage to the global climate. In these economies, engineers, politicians and citizens must find ways to reduce their per capita ecological footprint while maintaining their quality of life.
On the other hand, countries with low carbon footprints must find ways to increase the standard of living of their citizens' standard of living while keeping their environmental impact low.
SOURCE: UNEP, 2011
Social Impact Checklist
Use this checklist as a starting point for assessing the social impact of your project.
Take professional development courses on these topics to learn more about social sustainability.
|Social Impact Assessment
||Fair Trade standards|
International law concerning labour, accounting and the environment (e.g. avoiding conflict
minerals, or paying a living wage)
|Quality standards to safeguard the health and safety of customers|
|Anti-corruption and bribery laws||Supply Chain Transparency|
Engineers play a vital role in shaping our society.
From material extraction to product and technology design, to waste treatment, engineers contribute to the economy, standard of living and the health of communities. As a result, engineers impact our cultures and environment.
As the transition to sustainability grows ever more urgent, engineers must find balanced solutions to engineering problems. Those solutions must put equal weight on economic, social and environmental needs. Favouring one of these three over another leads to instability and new issues in the long run.
In their paper, Sustainable Development in Engineering: A Review of Principles and Definition of a Conceptual Framework, Gagnon et al., discuss what engineers must consider when designing a product or process beyond the technical nature of the problem.
Their recommendations are summarized in the diagram below.
SOURCE: Penn State
In his paper, Engineering Sustainability: A Technical Approach to Sustainability, Marc A. Rosen of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, lists several distinct components to how engineering can be practised sustainably in society.
According to his research, there are five requirements for engineering sustainability:
Reduced environmental impact
Finding solutions to engineering problems that promote social and economic
Take professional development courses on these topics to learn more about sustainable engineering.
|Life Cycle Thinking
||Life Cycle Assessment
Water-based energy, (e.g., hydraulic, wave, tidal, ocean thermal),
Energy from wastes
Waste thermal energy recuperation and use,
Improved resource management,
Resource demand management,
Better matching of energy carriers and energy demands,
More efficient utilization of resources in both quantity and quality
Exergy is similar to energy but differs by providing a measure of the usefulness or quality of material or energy quantities.
Reduced Environmental Impact:
Global climate change,
Acidification, and its impact on soil and water (due to acidic emissions),
Abiotic resource depletion potential (due to extraction of non-renewable raw materials),
Ecotoxicity (due to exposure to toxic substances that lead to health problems),
Radiological impacts (such as radiogenic cancer mortality or morbidity due to internal or external radiation exposure)
Social and Economic Sustainability:
Meeting increasing resource demands,
Community involvement and social acceptability,
Appropriate land use,
Population growth's effect on the environment,
Planetary Boundaries (The carrying capacity of the planet)
Life-cycle Engineering (LCE) is
a sustainability-oriented engineering methodology that takes into account the overall technical, environmental, and economic impacts of decisions within the product life cycle.
The product life cycle begins with the raw material extraction stage and ends with disposal, hence the name "cradle-to-grave" approach.
Life-cycle engineering involves applying life-cycle assessment (LCA) to calculate the environmental impacts of a product or process as well as life cycle costing (LCC) to assess the economic effects.
The diagram below shows the main components of a life-cycle assessment. The LCA defines a system boundary and analyses four processes, namely:
Raw Materials Acquisition
The LCA accounts for useful and harmful outputs.
The overriding objective is to ensure that our human activities do not surpass the carrying capacity of the planet as defined by the nine planetary boundaries. We must operate within these limits to ensure our society does not exploit the Earth beyond its ability to support us.
The 9 Planetary Boundaries
Stratospheric ozone depletion
The use of Ozone-depleting chemical substances allows high-level ultraviolet (UV) radiation to reach ground level. This phenomenon causes higher rates of skin cancer in humans and damages biological systems on land and in the water. Fortunately, because of the Montreal Protocol's actions, we are on track to stay within this boundary.
Loss of biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and extinctions)
As the human population grows, the demand for food, water, and natural resources, has caused great losses to biodiversity and significant changes in natural ecosystems. The need for higher agricultural efficiency and the health of the biosphere must be balanced.
Chemical pollution and the release of novel entities
The release of toxic and long-lived substances into the environment can have potentially irreversible effects on living organisms and our climate. Even when the bioaccumulation of these pollutants (for example, synthetic organic pollutants, heavy metal compounds and radioactive materials) results in sub-lethal levels for organisms, harm to the ecosystem occurs through reduced fertility rates and, possibly, permanent genetic damage.
According to NASA, the concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere is at nearly 412 parts per million (ppm) and rising. This represents a 47 percent increase since the beginning of the Industrial Age, when the concentration was near 280 ppm, and an 11 percent increase since 2000 when it was near 370 ppm. (Source: NASA, The Atmosphere: Getting a Handle on Carbon Dioxide)
These levels are higher than the planetary boundary on climate change, damaging the Earth's polar sea-ice, perhaps permanently. Naturally occurring climate feedback loops intensify the Earth's warming, driving it to a warmer state and increasing sea levels by several meters. We will cross another tipping point if we do not stop weakening terrestrial carbon sinks by intentionally destroying the world's rainforests.
Carbon emissions not only affect our air but our oceans as well. Around a quarter of CO2 emissions ultimately end up in the oceans, causing their pH to increase. Surface ocean acidity has increased by 30% compared to pre-industrial times. Under these conditions, corals, some shellfish and plankton have trouble surviving. Like dominoes toppling over, this difficulty rises through the food chain leading to decreased fish stocks.
Freshwater consumption and the global hydrological cycle
By 2050, half a billion people will have difficulty accessing freshwater as a result of our activities, including global-scale changes in river flows and land use. As water becomes scarce, the pressure to intervene further in the natural hydrology will increase, intensifying the problem. The proposed freshwater consumption and environmental flow boundary acts to maintain the overall resilience of the Earth’s water systems.
Land system change
Humans convert the natural landscape of the Earth to live, play and grow food. As our population increases, we convert forests, grassland and wetlands to agricultural land. By doing so, we cause severe reductions in biodiversity, impact water flows, and alter the biogeochemical cycling of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other vital elements.
We now know that we must conserve forests to control climate change. Now we must set a planetary boundary for land systems. In addition to the absolute quantity of land we must also consider its function, quality and geographic distribution.
Nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and oceans
The agricultural use of fertilizers has had a dramatic impact on the natural cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus. Surprisingly, most of these elements end up in the atmosphere instead of being taken up by crops.
Nitrogen-and-phosphorous-laden rain then pollutes water bodies or accumulates in the terrestrial biosphere, destabilizing local ecosystems. Lakes and coastal marine regions become oxygen-starved.
For example, fertilizer transported by rivers from the US Midwest finds its way to the Gulf of Mexico, forming a 'dead zone' where the decline in the local shrimp catch has been dramatic.
Atmospheric aerosol loading
Aerosols affect the climate and our healths in many ways. Air pollution affects how clouds form and how air circulates on a global and regional scale. By reflecting or absorbing solar energy, these fine particles in the impact the global climate. Inhaling aerosols affects the healths of living organisms. For example, inhaling highly polluted air causes roughly 800,000 people to die prematurely each year. The toxicological and ecological effects of aerosols are still not well understood. Regardless, a planetary boundary must be defined to limit their impact.
The chart below estimates of how the different control variables for seven planetary boundaries have changed from 1950 to present. The green shaded polygon represents the safe operating space.
Source: Steffen et al. 2015
The carrying capacity of the Earth is finite. As a result, we must ensure to operate within its limits to ensure our survival.
The IPAT Equation
The IPAT equation is a simple formula expressing the impact of human activity on the environment to the human population, affluence and technology. It is written as,
I = P × A × T
I: human impact on the environment (I), in units of global hectare (gha). This is the ecological footprint of human activities.
P: population (P), in units of number of humans
A: affluence, in units of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita
T: Technology (T)
Let's dive into the details of these terms.
Ecological footprint calculations can determine I. The ecological footprint per capita indicates how much of the Earth's biologically productive surface is needed to regenerate the resources consumed by the human population.
Allfluence refers to the average consumption of each person. As we know, increasing consumption is putting more stress on the environment. Although GDP (Gross Domestic Product) measures production, it can be used as an indication of consumption, or affluence since it stands to reason that as production increases, consumption also increases.
T measures how resource-intensive the process of creating, transporting and disposing of the goods and services are. Technology can help mitigate the impact of affluence on the environment by increasing efficiency and using renewable resources. The situation at hand determines what technology indicator to use. For example, to measure the human impact on climate change, greenhouse gas emissions per unit of GDP may be used.
The engineer's role is to analyze the life-cycle of the product or process they are designing from the bottom up using life cycle assessment methods and related tools while being acutely aware of the need to remain with the planetary boundaries.
Achieving sustainability means reconciling the bottom-up approach of LCA and the top-down approach of the nine planetary boundaries.
“What sustainability tools are available to engineers?”
We’ve summarised a few in the tables below.
Training for Engineering Professionals:
Sustainability Implementation Systems
To learn how to implement sustainability in your practice or organization take courses on these systems.
Sustainability Implementation Systems
Sets out the criteria for an environmental management system
ISO 14000 Family
A system based on “systems
thinking, setting ambitious goals, and developing realistic strategies to achieve them.”
The Natural Step
A five-level framework for sustainability implementation:
Vision, Indicators, Systems, Innovation, Strategy
Download VISIS Tools
|Balanced Scorecard||A strategic planning and sustainability management system||
Balanced Scorecard Institute
Balanced Scorecard for Sustainability
Training for Engineering Professionals:
Sustainability Assessments and Measurement
Learn how to measure the sustainability of your process, product or organization by taking courses on these methods.
Sustainability Assessments and Measurement
Managers, strategists and engineers use indicators (parameters that provide data about a situation) to measure progress, make decisions, and take action.
Indicators of Sustainable Development: Guidelines and Methodologies, 3rd Edition United Nations
|Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
Addresses the following questions:
How have ecosystems changed over the past 50 years?
What are the most critical factors causing ecosystem damage?
What options do we have for better conserving, restoring, and benefiting from ecosystems?
Ecosystems and Human Well-being
|Future-Fit Business Benchmark (F2B2)
This benchmark includes a series of self-assessment tools to help businesses measure their sustainability performance. F2B2 defines 21 future-fit goals that address social and environmental challenges while improving business performance.
Future-Fit Business Benchmark
||Organizational sustainability assessment tool. The acronym stands for Sustainability – Competency, Opportunity, Reporting and Evaluation
S-CORE by ISSP
|Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA)
||Evaluate the environmental impacts of a particular activity, from the sourcing of raw materials through the entire life-cycle to waste disposal.
ISO 14040 Series
|Life-Cycle Costing (LCC)
||Identify the most cost-effective of life-cycle options
US General Services Administration
No one course could cover everything an engineer needs to know to integrate sustainability into their practice.
In the table below, we suggest broad sustainability topics to include in your training program.
Join our mailing list to get the latest updates on our courses.
Marianne Salama, P.Eng, MBA. Marianne is the president and founder of iPolytek, a company whose mission is to provide training for engineering professionals on sustainable development. Marianne is a member of the International Society of Sustainability Professionals.