A “unique opportunity” exists for engineers to underpin sustainable development in emerging economies but action must be taken now to cope with unprecedented population growth, climate change and scarcity of resources such as water, food and energy, experts at the IMechE have said.
Tim Fox, head of energy and climate change at the institution, told PE that growth in population to a peak of an estimated 9.5 billion people by the end of the century was likely to prove the “defining challenge”. His comments came in the wake of a new IMechE report, Population: Too Many People?, which was published earlier this month. Fox added that the challenge of climate change was closely interlinked with population growth and was likely to stress already scarce resources even further. Crisis and hardship could be the result for many millions if these issues were not addressed, Fox said.
But engineers around the world could play a crucial role in meeting the twin challenges of climate change and unprecedented population growth – about 75 million people are added to the planet each year, more than the population of Britain. “The report was put together by 70 engineers worldwide,” Fox said. “We concluded as a group that there was the technology and know-how available today to be able to provide a sustainable environment for a peak population of 9.5 billion people.”
Gradually industrialising countries in the developing world had the opportunity to avoid making the mistakes of their counterparts in the West and to “leapfrog” high-carbon, unsustainable industry in favour of low-carbon alternatives, Fox said. As an example, he cited the development of mobile phone technology and internet use in Africa, where an entire phase of industrial development – the use of laptops and desktop computers – seen in the developed world was skipped in favour of wireless connections.
“Newly developing countries have the opportunity to perform a similar leapfrogging, straight to low-carbon industrialisation rather than going down the high-carbon, unsustainable route we did. It’s a unique opportunity.”
Engineers would play a crucial role in providing the technology to ensure adequate water, housing, food and energy supplies for population growth and tackling climate change in the developing world and closer to home, Fox said.
He called on the government to take a lead in the introduction of a new framework for the Millennium Development Goals at the United Nations. The goals are set to be revised in 2015 and could focus on engineering. “Engineering fundamentally underpins the well-being of society and the future development of society,” Fox said. “We are calling on the government to take on board five engineering development goals and to build these proposals into the revision of the Millennium Development framework.”
Climate change would make the challenge of sourcing adequate food and water more difficult, Fox said. “But if we move now into the areas of the world that are going to experience the largest population growth in the future in a low-carbon, low greenhouse gas way, then it’s going to make dealing with climate change in the rest of the world more tenable.
“This report is a catalyst for future thinking about engineering development goals. The next stage is to develop very specific targets that we can measure ourselves against, and for those targets to be taken forward in an international agreement post-2015.”