Sustainable Engineering for a Changing Climate

Modified: 18th May 2020
Wordcount: 4906 words

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1.         Introduction

The impacts humans have on the changing environmental conditions has become better understood in recent years. During this report the consequences climate change will have on the engineering sector is explored. With particular focus on the sustainability and resilience issues that need to be investigated and acted upon in the immediate future. One of the first steps explored to address climate change is investigating the perspective of both the Resource Management Act (RMA) and M a¯

ori. It was concluded that the RMA concentrates more on the resilience of climate change effects, rather than creating sustainable infrastructure. While the M a¯

ori culture is seen too often align with the belief that both sustainable and resilient solutions are required. The grand engineering challenges that the engineering sector face due to climate change are covered. The challenge of redesigning the transport sector was discussed, and electric rail was explored as a possible solution.

2.         Climate, sustainability and resilience – systems perspective

The earth is moving into a new geological era which threatens the stabilization and sustainability of the planet and human race. This era is known as the Anthropocene epoch. It is defined as the geologic time period where human impacts on the global environment are so profound, they rival other geological forces (Steffen et al. 2011; Steffen et al. 2018). Recent stratigraphic research also indicates there is evidence that the earth is moving out of the Holocene epoch with a new layer of deposits forming (Waters et al. 2016). 

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The Holocene epoch is the era where evolution of the human species and their societies blossomed. Therefore, the environmental conditions and planetary state during this era are the only conditions we know our civilization and species can function effectively (Holocene 2003). Scientific research has recently indicated human activity is driving the Earth out of this era and into a more destabilised climate. Thus, a less hospitable state. The planetary boundary framework was constructed to identify the level of human perturbations which, if exceeded, would risk destabilising the Earths system (Figure 1). From the nine planetary boundaries, climate change and rate of biosphere integrity have been classified as the core boundaries. These have the ability to disrupt the state of the planet alone if exceeded extensively. Figure 1 shows that one third of the boundaries have already been transgressed, these being climate change, biosphere integrity and biochemical flows (Rockström et al. 2009).

Figure 1: The planetary boundary framework, displaying each of the nine individual boundaries (Steffen et al. 2015)

Although these planetary boundaries have been exceeded, the feedback tipping points have not. This is the point were any small change in one of the controlled variables, such as CO2, will cause an abrupt and possible inversible catastrophic change to the Earth systems. Therefore, it is crucial that the human population acknowledge and respond to return the earth to its safe operating state, before the threshold is crossed.

One example of an Earth process system is climate change. The changes in the earth’s temperature, sea levels, and glacier melt are recent indications of this. Climate change is the change in usual weather found at one location, or in the earth’s climate as a whole (Stillman 2014). Although the earth, pre homo sapiens, had undergone significant environmental changes, it is believed that the human civilization has indirectly/directly contributed to the latest environment changes. The greenhouse effect is an example of how human activity has affected the climate. The burning of fossil fuels such as, coal and oil, along with deforestation has caused an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is one of the three major greenhouse gases, the others including methane and nitrous oxide. When solar radiation enters the earth’s atmosphere 33% of the visible light bounces back off reflective surfaces such as ice, clouds and snow. The other 66% warms the land and sea before being emitted back out as IR thermal radiation. Greenhouse gases absorb these rays before releasing them in a different direction. Thus, acting as a barrier, trapping the radiation in the atmosphere, warming the earth (Schwartz 2018).

Understanding how climate change and the other eight Earth system processes react to change individually, will not provide a perfect understanding of how the whole system will respond. This is due to the Earth being an adaptive complex system (Donner et al. 2009). Therefore, although each of the Earth system process have separate boundaries and can be analysed individually it is important to learn how the relationships between these processes will affect the system. For example, as the levels of carbon dioxide increase, climate change is pushed further over its planetary boundary, thus increasing temperatures. Consequently, this threatens the food sources and habits of organisms, leading to a severe loss in biodiversity (2019). This shows that in order to move towards a ‘safe earth’ we must analyse the system as a whole as well as the individual components.

To meet these standards, it puts a huge responsibility on not just scientists and engineers but also on individuals, communities and societies to adjust their behaviour and improve their conceptual thinking. At the Systems 2030 Workshop in Bristol, climate change was determined to be ‘one of the most outstanding challenges to the engineering profession’ (Hall. and Pidgeon. 2010). With the Earth systems being threatened and environmental changes already being observed, engineers have challenging decisions ahead of them. They will be required to produce not only resilient infrastructure but also ensure that it is sustainable.

To produce a sustainable and resilient solution it is important to understand each individually first. The oxford dictionary defines resilience as the ability to recover quickly from difficulties, and the ability to return to its original shape after being bent or stretched (Resilience 2019). Therefore, a resilient engineering solution would perhaps be able to adapt to, and recover from, the impacts of climate change. A resilient solution would also ensure infrastructure, society and the economy would be resilient to changes in environment and climate.

Sustainability on the other hand is the ability to maintain at a certain rate or level. While sustainable development can be defined as “meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”  (Sustainability 2019). Sustainability is critical when developing solutions to problems brought upon by climate change. For example, in order to insure climate change does not exceed its planetary boundary, it will be important the production of energy moves away from fossil fuels and into renewable energy. This will provide numerous engineering challenges, including adapting as new forms of renewable transport are developed.

To develop a favourable solution it is crucial both resiliency and sustainability are carefully considered during design. For example, sustainability in urban transport efficiency is key. If one highway can be built that will cut travel time in half it is likely to be chosen over maintaining the current roads and increasing their capacity. However, if a disaster occurs and the highway is damaged there is no alternative root, thus no resilience (Elmqvist et al. 2019). As the earth moves towards a state where disasters and environmental conditions become more uncertain, it becomes more important to prepare rather than plan. Hence efficiency becomes less desirable while the need for resilience increases. Although resiliency and sustainability are often observed to have a negative correlation it is important to design a solution that maximizes both where possible (Heffernan 2019).

3.         Addressing climate change – the resource management act and m a¯

ori persectives

Climate change is quickly becoming one of the most threatening long-term hazards to human civilization. As climate change becomes more understood the public, including the M a¯

ori community will become more informed on its effects and influences. Therefore, as seen with changes made to the Resource Management Act (RMA) in recent years, rules and regulations in regard to climate change will continue to be put in place. Hence, it is important that engineering practices adapt to operate and produce infrastructure in a way that is not only sustainable and resilient but also aligns itself with both the RMA and M a¯

ori perspectives.

The purpose of the Resource Management Act is to “promote sustainable management of natural and physical resources”. Where sustainable management incorporates ensuring resources are available for future generations, safeguarding the earth’s core elements (air, water, land, ecosystems) and reducing/mitigating any adverse effect on the environment (2019).

In terms of addressing climate change the RMA at present does not require councils to prepare for the effects of climate but rather only allows them to do so. This results in a particularly broad overview on how councils should plan to mitigate its future effects, as shown in Section 70A (Change 2005). The government also removed the control councils have over the discharge of greenhouse gases in the resource consent. The control on greenhouse gas discharge was brought to a national level in 2004, hoping it would provide consistency throughout the nation. (Cite Lecture) This has left the RMA to concentrate more on the resilience of climate change effects, rather than implementing regulations that reduce activities that influence it.

In Section 6e of the RMA it ensures that all personnel associated shall recognise and provide for the relationship of M a¯

ori and their culture (Foundation 2018). Hence, there must be a large emphasis put on making an effort to work alongside the M a¯

ori community. To do this, it is important that all personnel working on the project have a general understanding of the M a¯

ori culture and how this may differ from a more western approach.

The tangata whenua have a holistic view towards the earth and its resources, with the land perceived to be Papat u¯a¯

nuku (the earth mother). The belief of the interconnection between the various parts of the natural and physical environment, prompts the M a¯

ori community to interact with the natural world differently than western societies, who view the earth more as a property that is owned (Foundation 2018). Their holistic view and oldest principle of M o¯

t a¯

tou, a¯

, m o¯

k a¯

  uri a muri ake nei which translates to ‘for us and our children after us’ both demonstrate their strong belief that how people interact with the earth effects the current society and future generations. For example, healthy ecosystems are seen to have a direct relationship with human and spiritual well-being. The tangata whenua also believe that changes that cause a shift in part of the earths system will upset the whole balance of the universe. Hence, may require changes in multiple areas to restore balance (Majurey et al. 2010).

There are multiple areas of the M a¯

ori culture that align with climate change and the actions required to reduce it. For example, the release of greenhouse gases into the air has a negative effect on the earth and is putting the health of future generations at risk. This has parallels with the holistic perspective of the M a¯

ori. It aligns with their understanding that by offsetting the balance of carbon dioxide within the atmosphere it will cause the earth to become unbalanced thus, causing further effects.

Therefore, both the Resource Management Act and the M a¯

ori have similar perspectives in terms of sustainability for future generations, and maintaining human, social and environmental well-being. As climate change becomes more understood there will be a greater responsibility for engineers to design infrastructure that aligns itself with the perspectives of both the RMA and M a¯

ori. For example, designing infrastructure such that it will have minimal effect on the environment helps align with M a¯

ori culture. While a design that can withstand the ever-changing environment will help it meet the requirements of the RMA. Thus, the project will be more likely to be granted resource consent and the project will be more streamlined. By understanding the M a¯

ori culture and consulting the tangata whenua during the project design it will minimize conflict throughout the construction.

4.         Grand challenges for engineering

As the adverse effects of climate change become acknowledged and understood, engineers are faced with one of their greatest challenges. They are required to design structures that can withstand a climate of greater variability and extremes. While also finding efficient ways to transform existing infrastructure to accommodate these future environmental and social conditions. With previous climate conditions not providing an accurate model of the future climate, it requires engineers to design with a large level of uncertainty. Therefore, engineers are required to adapt to unanticipated changes brought upon by climate change. However, as explained earlier in this report, the requirements of engineers include much more than just adaptation and resilience. Engineers also have a responsibility to help reduce the anthropogenic impact on the environment. Thus taking steps to return the earth to a safe Earth state.

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The evolution of the transport sector is one of the grand challenges engineers face in regard to mitigating climate change. The transport sector was responsible for 27% of greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union (EU) during 2016. 72% of that came from road transport (2018). With greenhouse gas emissions having a direct relationship with climate change it is no surprise that going car free is the greatest action an individual can make to decrease their effect on climate change (Ortiz 2018).

For engineers to develop a road transport system that is both resilient and sustainable both environmental and social factors must be considered. With climate extremes expected to intensify and become more frequent, sea level rise, temperature, draughts, floods and other natural disasters all pose the threat of causing damage and disruptions to the transport sector.

The lifespan and durability of roads will also decrease with the changing climate (Hunt 2007). This will significantly increase the natural resources and cost required for maintenance and construction.

One solution that could be considered is the development of electric rail. The rail would have the ability to be elevated above urban infrastructure and other areas. This would reduce overcrowding within urban areas while also insuring the environmental footprint is as small as possible. This would also allow the rail to be raised above areas in risk of flooding, reducing its risk of being damaged during disasters. In areas that are threatened by slips or rockfalls, the piles could be strengthen and driven in deeper. Thus, the number of environmental conditions that threaten the transport sector would be significantly reduced if elevated rail was used.

With the railway being electric it allows the trains to be powered by renewable energy. If the electric rail was designed in such a way that it was easily accessible while also being efficient it would become the preferred transport option. Consequently reducing the need for single ownership of cars and other carbon emitting transport (ASCE 2019). Electric rail therefore has the ability of almost completely mitigating the greenhouse gases produced from road transport.

5.         Conclusion

In conclusion, if the human population does not reduce their anthrophonic impact and take action to move the earth back towards a ‘safe earth’ state, we will drive the Earth out of this era and into a more destabilised climate. Thus, a less hospitable state. It is therefore crucial the nine planetary boundaries are each analysed individually and as a system to determine the most efficient process to reduce these impacts. It was concluded that any solutions explored to address climate change should have parallel perspectives with both the Resource Management Act and the M a¯

ori. Where the RMA concentrates more on the resilience of climate change effects, rather than creating sustainable infrastructure, and the M a¯

ori culture is seen too often align with the belief that both sustainable and resilient solutions are required. The grand engineering challenges that the engineering sector face to mitigate climate change and its effects were explored. The evolution of the transport sector was decided to be one of the most important challenges and therefore, electric rail was explored as a possible solution. It was determined electric rail could be a suitable solution as it had the possibility of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, overcrowding, our environmental footprint and the disruption caused by natural disasters.


6.         References


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