Young engineers and the climate emergency
Date published

22 December 2020

The Institution of Structural Engineers The Institution of Structural Engineers
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Young engineers and the climate emergency

Date published
Date published

22 December 2020

In this piece, Pooja Shah shares her thoughts on how young engineers can respond to the climate emergency. Pooja is an Engineer at RDG Engineering and Chair of the IStructE London Young Members' Group.

In 2019, the UK government became the first major world economy to legislate a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. The goal is to minimise the effects of global warming, and to align the UK’s economy with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This bold move was in response to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) call for ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes’.

In June 2019, structural engineering firms across the industry declared a climate emergency. In response to this, the Institution of Structural Engineers set up a task group, with one aim being to provide guidance and resources needed to tackle this emergency.

Young engineers and the future of construction

Building construction and operations account for the largest global share of energy related CO2 emissions, around 39%. These emissions contribute to the widespread climate change events we are witnessing today.


In our industry, climate change will have the most impact on young engineers. This is because we are faced with the reality of living most of our adult lives with its effects.

We will soon be in positions of influence. This gives us the opportunity to make a difference for current and future generations.

For the foreseeable future, we only have planet earth to call home. This is why it is important to act now and push the boundaries of what we can achieve as a group. This must start with a paradigm shift in our thought process and practise.

Rising to the challenge of the climate emergency

Bill McKibben, an American environmentalist, once said ‘climate change is the single biggest thing that humans have ever done on this planet. The one thing that needs to be bigger is our movement to stop it.’

We can make our movement bigger by:
  • Asking questions
  • Seeking answers
  • Applying the solutions
  • Engaging the community
If we can do this, the world will be a better place.

As young engineers, we are uniquely positioned in our industry to make a legitimate impact. This is because of our passion, agility, focus and hard work. All we need now is guidance on how to tackle the emergency.

The Climate Emergency Task Group (CETG) has taken an excellent step by setting out a six-point approach to achieve zero carbon goal by 2050. Initial reading across all six of the CETG’s themes is listed in the article a Framework for Change, published in June’s The Structural Engineer.

I believe this six-point approach can be supported by young engineers in several ways.

Young engineers should learn about the challenges ahead

The first step to solving any challenge is to educate ourselves about it. We should all be aware of our duties under the Structural Engineers Declaration. We should encourage our employers to sign up and ask our managers ‘why not’ if they haven’t. We should take advantage of the information published by IStructE and other professional bodies on climate change due to built environment, sustainable design principles and more. We have no reason to not take this first step.

It would also be helpful to familiarise ourselves with the IStructE’s Climate Emergency webpage.

Young engineers can take the lead in encouraging responsible practice

Steps two to five, as set out by CETG, give us a brilliant road map of design ideas and information we can use to achieve this goal. Each of us can do something in our capacity. Some of us might face anxiety about how to make a difference given we are at the beginning of our careers. However, it is important to know that you are not alone. We should start by questioning the design brief:
  • Do we need to demolish the building?
  • Is there scope to use recycled or reclaimed material?
We may not yet be in the position to ask these questions directly of the client. But we can ask them of our teams, our line managers, and the architects and engineers we work with each day. Question every design choice made by your team through the lens of sustainability. If we can get one client to tweak their brief to be more sustainable, we would have started an unstoppable movement.

Young engineers can mobilise to tackle the climate emergency

We must think about engaging within the community of engineers, students, colleagues and government officials to exchange ideas, information and influence policy. I’d encourage you to join your local young member’s regional group through the IStructE’s Get Involved webpage.

We, young engineers, must work in synergy using technology. We must pursue senior management to support us. We should use our single biggest strength, our passion, for every opportunity we get to be heard and to make a difference.

I hope this article has motivated you to take the first step towards tackling climate change. If it has, I invite you to reach out about the ideas, experiences and challenges you are facing using: [email protected]


Image notes
*Image adapted from IEA (2019a), World Energy Statistics and Balances (database) and IEA (2019b), Energy Technology Perspectives, buildings model.

Construction industry is the portion (estimated) of overall industry devoted to manufacturing building construction materials such as steel, cement and glass. Indirect emissions are emissions from power generation for electricity and commercial heat.


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