More female engineers could help solve the climate crisis

As politicians take centre stage at the UN climate negotiations, the engineering community is already turning words into action. A more equal gender balance and self-regulated industries are key in the battle against climate change, suggests a roundtable report.

By Morten Lund, November 2015

“We must be grateful for the praiseworthy efforts being made by scientists and engineers dedicated to finding solutions to man-made problems."

Although most engineers are probably more interested in thermodynamics and structural loads than the Vatican’s blessing, these words expressed by Pope Francis in his June 2015 manifesto on climate change were a remarkable acknowledgement of the crucial role the engineering community plays in combatting climate change.

Politicians are indisputably the main actors at the COP21 summit in Paris and the subsequent climate negotiations, but while they and other policy makers remain preoccupied with wording and commas, engineers around the world are already turning words into action.

For instance, the Institution of Engineers, Singapore (IES) has turned roundtable discussions from the World Engineers Summit on Climate Change, held in Singapore in July 2015, into a new report showcasing the industry’s best practices and possible solutions for building climate change resilience.

The report can be viewed as a business sector contribution to the ongoing UN climate negotiations and is being presented at COP21 by engineer Seng Chuan Tan, Ramboll Environ’s regional managing director for Asia-Pacific and vice president of the World Federation of Engineering Organizations (WFEO), which represents 20 million engineers across all disciplines in more than 90 countries.

More women, please

The IES report focuses strongly on the role of women in building climate resilience. Although, unfortunately, the number of female engineers remains low, they could directly strengthen the climate resilience of any society, the report notes.

“Because the engineering profession is traditionally dominated by men, not many women are studying engineering. We want to encourage more women to get into engineering and bring the leadership role from their homes into the engineering community. They could be role models in many regards, for instance, in terms of community engagement on energy conservation, recycling and waste reuse,” says Seng Chuan Tan.

Firstly, in work environments women tend to be good communicators and to adopt collaborative approaches when exploring solutions to problems. Secondly, women play a vital role as climate ambassadors in and around their homes, especially in the rural areas of Asia, Africa and South America, by promoting recycling, energy efficiency and other environmental practices that can lead to better climate resilience at the micro level.

Action is needed to empower women in rural areas to extend their leadership role outside the household and into the community, the report stresses. Demonstration projects made and maintained by women could, for example, serve as skill development centres and best practice cases.

Similar empowerment initiatives are needed on the labour market. The report suggests raising gender balance awareness within existing organisations like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), rolling out mentorship programmes or perhaps even modifying project terms of reference (ToR):

“For all projects funded by financial institutions, it could be worded into the ToR to consider the role of women in building climate resilience,” states the report.

The pope calls for action

In general, the report stresses that although governments should take the lead in the struggle against climate change, the business sector should and can be a vital catalyst in creating the climate-resilient solutions of tomorrow. For instance, cross-industry clusters that impose self-regulatory schemes on key industries could
be established – like the RE100 initiative, in which influential companies like Nestlé, Ikea and Nike have committed to setting goals for their use of renewable energy.

As state-led initiatives by most accounts will not suffice on their own, industry initiatives like these are crucial if we want to limit global warming to a maximum of two degrees, believes climate policy expert professor Björn-Ola Linnér from the University of Colorado and Linköping University’s Centre for Climate Science and Policy Research in Sweden.

“Voluntary standards by businesses can be a vital contribution, provided they are geared to stimulate a radical move to low-carbon transformation rather than a slow adjustment,” Björn-Ola Linnér says, adding that ambitious voluntary standards do more than bring down emissions and showcase new technologies:

“For the public these standards are also a strong symbolic act showing that important actors in society are acknowledging the seriousness of climate change and taking their responsibility to complement what government regulations can achieve.”

Pope Francis believes that – symbolic or not, mandatory or not – urgent action is needed:

“The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action – here and now,” he said in his June 2015 manifesto on Climate Change.

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