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Engineers need a voice in public policy

Dec 1, 2022 | Public | 0 comments

Climate change is the most pressing and existential threat to civilization, and without drastic change, we are unequivocally heading towards a grim future.

There is still time to change that: COP27 was the most critical meeting of governments, businesses and environmental organizations collaborating to combat climate change. Yet, at the summit, the U.S. faced a disconnect between what needs to be done and the policies and regulations in place to address climate change.

In the face of this, there is a group of experts that rarely has a voice in the public sector but that hold the keys to save civilization: engineers. Climate change mitigation is a fossil fuel problem — primarily related to energy use and deeply embedded in our engineered systems for infrastructure, buildings and transportation — the systems that support civilization. As such, engineers can play a massive role in accelerating our net-zero transition. For example, building services engineers work to electrify and decarbonize our existing buildings, which are responsible for 40 percent of harmful emissions. Transportation engineers can innovate to reshape our transport options and implement electric fleet solutions. Utility engineers will help decarbonize our grid and improve its resilience. And infrastructure engineers can build roads, bridges, distribution facilities and waste management systems with more sustainable and energy efficient materials that emit fewer emissions throughout its entire lifecycle.

Engineers shaping the built environment have a responsibility to leverage their knowledge and tools to go beyond building individual projects and to work to influence policy that accelerates mitigation.

This summer, the Supreme Court voted to limit the EPA’s power to regulate carbon emissions. While the subsequent Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) presents a massive opportunity to decarbonize our energy supply and incentivizes net-zero buildings, there is no coherent narrative or communication plan to clearly allocate the billions of dollars to achieve the lofty goals the law outlines. As the largest investment the United States has made to mitigate climate change, the IRA is a massive step in the right direction, and one to celebrate. We need clear guidance on how to most effectively direct our effort. And engineers need to play their part.

Legislators tasked with undertaking complex infrastructure and climate issues need to understand enough about the technical systems to make good decisions. But people with engineering backgrounds represent only 3 percent of today’s Congress. Given this gap, engineers outside the public sector need to recognize their potential to contribute and find ways to get involved. We are the experts on how energy use and efficiency in buildings, infrastructure and transportation projects will decarbonize —and the details matter. Breaking down the technical challenges in a way that enables lawmakers to understand the implications for people, the economy and the planet is critical.

Legislators tasked with undertaking complex infrastructure and climate issues need to understand enough about the technical systems to make good decisions.

Climate change mitigation will be successful when engineers, communities and policymakers work together to take a systems-based approach. By identifying clear direction and collateral effects, and then supporting that thinking with implementable solutions, projects can yield multiple benefits at all scales, from improved local air quality and increased access to greenspace to creating hospitals, data centers and community spaces that are resilient in the face of increasingly frequent and intense storms. Understanding community needs improves climate change mitigation and adaptation policies at a local level and understanding systems connectivity — such as the impact of energy and water systems on each other and on carbon emissions — can help scale policies to serve whole regions.

There are many examples of successful, collaborative models: In New York City, in 2010, Urban Green Council convened experts from every facet of the building industry to vet possible changes to the building code to increase energy efficiency at a low or manageable cost to each stakeholder. Throughout this process, engineers, architects, developers and landowners each had the chance to weigh in and frame why these changes are necessary and how they are attainable.

More recently, the Local Law 97 Advisory Board working group discussions have included community groups, engineers, architects and advocates, among others, to help develop effective detailed regulations. Both cases demonstrate the power of what can be achieved when lawmakers lean on issue experts.

The knowledge we need is in the heads of many specialists, some of whom speak in their own technical jargon from their own perspectives. Achieving good policy means we must strive for a shared lexicon, scale the conversation beyond the city and state. We must find ways to build bridges between the islands of knowledge. This means that specialists must be prepared and empowered to step forward and clearly communicate their knowledge with confidence that our legislators and policymakers will seek to understand well enough to make good decisions. We must create space in our government systems to collaborate with those who best understand the challenge at hand.

Tackling and managing climate change is the challenge of our generation and every generation to come. It’s time for engineers to put our tools and expertise to use to shape a more sustainable and more resilient world. Doing so will help us save civilization.

The post "Engineers need a voice in public policy" appeared first on Green Biz

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