Engineering firms in Australia face mounting pressure from their own employees to abandon fossil fuel projects following declarations of climate and biodiversity emergency across the sector. One such project is Adani Group’s controversial Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin, Queensland, which recently saw major firms Aurecon and Cardno cut all commercial ties.
Much of this impetus for change stems from the launch of Australian Engineers Declare (AED) in September by for-purpose organisation, Engineering Without Borders. AED recognizes that engineering activities contribute to over 65% of Australia’s direct greenhouse gas emissions, and urges engineers to take up the mantle on climate action and facilitate the transition to a low carbon future.
Around 1,300 engineers and 118 organisations (including Arup Australia, Senversa and Cundall) have signed AED’s 12-point declaration, pledging to “evaluate all new projects against the environmental necessity to mitigate climate change” and “take a whole-of-system, whole-of-life approach” to economic assessments. It also acknowledges the expertise of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and vows to collaborate in adopting practices that are “respectful, culturally sensitive and regenerative”.
There has been considerable pushback from the fossil fuel industry and its allies in response. Ian Macfarlane, chief executive of the Queensland Resources Council, claims that firms who “succumbed to anti-resources and anti-jobs timetables” were less likely to be hired. This is a real concern for engineers with skills specific to resource extraction, as well as for the 14,200 businesses supported by Queensland’s resources industry.
Yet AED maintains a hopeful vision for what an ethics-based (‘politicized’) engineering profession could look like, and its attraction to younger talent. “Every switched-on engineering company is thinking, ‘Hang on – if we’re serious about retaining smart, capable, empathetic employees, we need to think seriously about the ethics behind all aspects of our work”, says Lizzie Webb, an AED coordinator.
Mitigation and adaption against climate change cannot be successful without engineering solutions. By providing technical know-how to decision makers and refining climate-positive approaches, engineers are uniquely placed to drive tangible infrastructural change. That said, is rejecting fossil fuel projects the most effective way of engaging the industry in this conversation? Or is the transition to a sustainable future more viable by excluding them altogether?