Australia New Zealand, Impact

Michael Li guided the sustainable development of commercial office tower 41X, which is the Victorian state headquarters of the Australian Institute of Architects located in the central business district of Melbourne, Australia. The tower achieved a 5-star Green Star certified rating, an internationally recognized sustainability rating system.

Engineers play an integral role in shaping our interaction with the world. The decisions we make on a day-to-day basis through our work can have a range of environmental, social and economic impacts. The construction of buildings, for example, consumes natural resources outside of the boundaries of what happens on-site, including the energy, water and raw materials that go into the manufacturing of construction materials. The urban heat island effect in major cities, meanwhile, can cause undue stress to inhabitants during heat waves — particularly the homeless — and new jobs and revenue streams can flow from major infrastructure projects or innovative manufacturing.

The work of engineers also significantly influences, both positively and negatively, our human contribution to climate change. Climate change does not just present environmental risks; it is also a risk to global political stability, infrastructure and food security. Given that climate change is one of humanity’s biggest challenges of the 21st century, and its effects are already starting to be felt around the world, it is imperative that the engineering profession commits to playing its part in reducing its impacts. For society to develop solutions that minimise climate change, engineers must play a fundamental and active role.

There are many opportunities for engineers to work directly in the field of sustainability and contribute to climate change solutions. In my role with integrated infrastructure firm AECOM, I advise project teams and clients on reducing the environmental impact of buildings, while creating a healthy and positive environment for building tenants. I also use analytical skills to provide strategic direction on sustainability initiatives at a precinct or community-wide level, such as low-carbon energy generation or sustainable transport. Many engineers develop new technologies that reduce our environmental footprint — such as solar panels and hydrogen fuel cells — or that are involved in the efficient manufacturing of these technologies. Environmental engineers, meanwhile, make their contribution to sustainability through the use of engineering principles that reduce the impact of major industrial activities.

However, the contribution engineers can make in sustainability isn’t limited to these so-called “traditional’ fields of engineering. The strength of the engineering profession is the combination of analytical abilities with strong communication and interpersonal skills to effectively inspire change in the way people do business or live their lives. For example, AECOM has developed a Total Carbon Metric methodology for office developments that assesses the carbon impacts of a building across a range of emissions sources. The metric looks at carbon emissions from on-site demolition and construction, the embodied carbon in the materials, the carbon emitted during the operation of the building from electricity and gas consumption, staff transport to and from work, and waste sent to the landfill. The tenants in the building then commit to purchasing carbon offsets annually to account for operational emissions from that year, as well as a portion of the fixed-embodied carbon impact.

The total carbon impact isn’t the only output of this tool. The tool also assists tenants in tracking and offsetting their environmental impacts over the course of each year. Our role in implementing this tool is not just to inform the tenants of what they need to offset, but also to support the tenants in using and understanding the results in a meaningful way so they can reduce their carbon emissions. This approach shows how engineers can use their skills to not only “crunch the numbers” and influence designs, but also to engage with people to understand environmental impacts and drive the behavioural change required to minimise the impacts of climate change.

This ability to influence isn’t limited to engineers working directly in the field of sustainability. Engineering professionals from all backgrounds and industries have the unique combination of technical and interpersonal skills that can be utilised to contribute to climate change solutions.

So my challenge to you is this: How can you, in your professional career, use your engineering skills to influence your clients, colleagues, peers and suppliers to make choices that work towards a more sustainable future?


Michael.Li_HS_89x100Michael Li is an AECOM environmentally sustainable development engineer based in Melbourne, Australia. In late 2014, he was named one of 25 young professionals under 25 transforming the world of sustainable business by collaborative sustainability community 2degrees for his commitment to sustainability.

Originally published May 13, 2015

Author: Michael Li