Climate change. Global warming. These continue to be “controversial” terms in today’s world. I’m not going to get into the debate of whether or not the science is real (though I’m going to go out on a limb and say most engineers believe in the science). The undeniable truth is there are limits to Earth’s natural resources.
Let’s look at water for example. Water is a precious resource; one necessary for our survival. Yet according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), about 1/5 of the world’s population (1.2 billion people) lives in areas of physical water scarcity, and 500 million people are approaching this situation. By 2030, with the existing climate change scenario, UNDESA reports almost half of the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress, and water scarcity in some arid and semi-arid places will displace between 24 million and 700 million people.
In the U.S., many Western states are currently facing a drought. California and Colorado experienced their largest fires ever reported in 2020, and the fire season itself is two to three months longer than it was a few decades ago. As of right now, about 77% of California is experiencing severe drought, according to ABC News. The current drought conditions heading into the 2021 fire season are giving many a grim outlook for the year.
Additionally, during my research for this column I came across a nonprofit organization called The Global Footprint Network and Earth Overshoot Day, which marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. To determine Earth Overshoot Day each year, the Global Footprint Network divides the planet’s biocapacity (the amount of ecological resources the Earth is able to generate that year), by humanity’s ecological footprint (humanity’s demand for that year), and multiplying by the number of days in a year: Planet’s Biocapacity / Humanity’s Ecological Footprint) x 365 = Earth Overshoot Day.
In 2019, Earth Overshoot Day fell on July 29 — the earliest ever. That meant humanity was using nature 1.75 times faster than our planet’s ecosystems can regenerate, akin to using 1.75 Earths. However, Earth Overshoot Day fell three weeks later in 2020 on Aug. 22 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year’s date reflects the 9.3% reduction of humanity’s ecological footprint from Jan. 1 to Earth Overshoot Day compared to the same period last year, which is a direct consequence of the coronavirus-induced lockdowns around the world. Decreases in wood harvest and CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion are the major drivers behind the historic shift in the long-term growth of humanity’s Ecological Footprint, the organization notes.
However, if something does not change soon, Earth Overshoot Day will once again start coming earlier and earlier every year. That’s where sustainability comes in. Last year, Schneider Electric and the Global Footprint Network released a joint eBook called “Strategies for One-Planet Prosperity,” which presents framework for companies to build for economic success and resiliency. The eBook notes that if 100% of the world’s existing buildings and industry infrastructure were equipped with readily available energy efficiency and renewable energy technology from manufacturers (such as Schneider Electric), the date of Earth Overshoot Day could move back by at least 21 days. This means energy efficient retrofits alone — with no change in human habits — could make a large impact. The eBook also notes if we could move Earth Overshoot Day back by just five days every year, we will be back to one-planet compatibility before 2050, in line with the Paris Climate Agreement.
This is where you come in. All throughout history, engineers have played significant roles to help address a myriad of challenges, such as providing access to clean water and sanitation. In today’s world, engineers must think of sustainability when approaching each new project. Sustainability is more than just being energy efficient — though that plays a large part. It is about creating scalable designs that can be maintained and upgraded well into the future.
Keep clicking through to this issue to learn more about the importance of sustainable water infrastructure and security, or click here to read more.
As an engineer, it is your duty to help design systems that ensure safe potable water as well as develop sustainable water infrastructure for future generations. We don’t want to wake up one day with the landscape looking like some wasteland out of “Mad Max.”