What can we do to help achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals?

Former President's Apprentice Alex Crump looks at what we as engineers can do to help ensure the UN's Sustainable Development Goals can be achieved.

Goal 6 of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals requires us to ensure the
Goal 6 of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals requires us to ensure the "availability and sustainable management" of water resources.
  • Updated: 26 June, 2017
  • Author: Alex Crump, Graduate Engineer at Devon County Council

In December 2015 I used the Infrastructure Blog to express personal excitement at the conclusion of the climate talks in Paris. Consensus had been reached and decision makers demonstrated a widespread desire to limit the effects of climate change. The world had committed to protecting our planet’s future and civil engineers could lead the way.

Engineer apathy

More recently US President Donald Trump made international headlines by announcing that the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases will not honour the commitments made in 2015. The long-term effect of this decision is impossible to quantify but it’s undoubtedly disappointing news.

In the same week New Civil Engineer (NCE) featured the headline ‘Engineers apathetic about sustainability goals’. The article is based on the findings of an exclusive NCE survey which states ‘apathy and lack of knowledge of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are holding engineers back from working towards them’.

A combination of these influences left me feeling forced to revisit my previous enthusiastic optimism.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

In 2015 the United Nations replaced its 8 Millennium Development Goals by introducing 17 new SDGs with the flagship aim of ending poverty for all everywhere. While the previous goals were largely social and economic the latest efforts portray a shifting focus towards environmental sustainability.

The key goals for built environment professionals include:

  • Goal 6 – Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  • Goal 9 – Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation
  • Goal 11 – Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

Built environment's role

It’s clear that the UN’s 194 member states will not be able to recognise these targets without the built environment sector playing a pivotal role. However, NCE’s SDG survey highlights a fundamental issue - lack of knowledge. It is therefore imperative that the industry pulls together and promotes greater understanding of sustainable development.

ICE’s Code of Conduct requires ‘all members to show due regard for the environment’ and there’s no doubt the industry is improving but cultural changes in any sector take time. Nevertheless, we must surely do more and we can all contribute to this agenda by:

  • Improving links with educational establishments to upskill the existing workforce and ensure those entering the industry in the future have the correct skills
  • Judging projects on environmental factors alongside (or above) the traditional mantra of time and cost
  • Lobbying front-end stakeholders (policymakers, planners etc.) to ensure the SDGs are engrained through the entire project lifecycle
  • Even old-fashioned coffee shop discussions

These steps would help ensure that should NCE repeat its survey in the future that our industry is never again portrayed as being ‘apathetic’ towards goals which fundamentally aim to eradicate poverty. Understanding and human compassion will inspire action.

Sustainable future is achievable

We live in an age with the potential to be remembered as averting the greatest challenge facing our planet. We are also fortunate enough to work in an industry which will directly influence this destiny. However, the time to act is now, these are issues for which time won’t wait. The Paris deal showed common ambition to achieve this and I believe that recent news only increases the importance of civil engineers working towards a sustainable future.

The SDGs can play a pivotal role but we must remember they are only voluntary goals. The onus is on all of us to take them seriously.

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