Engineers and scientists are being reinvented by green expectations. They're being prised away from their test tubes and undergoing a radical transformation. Overhaul complete, they are the superheroes who will protect us from the onslaught of climate change.
As an engineer myself, I am pleased with the politicians' new-found faith in our potential. Not so long ago engineering meant Brunel, Stephenson and the heroes of yesteryear, rather than the cutting-edge and energy-efficient technology that is today being developed in the labs of companies such as Rolls-Royce (currently working on energy efficient "open rotor" engines which may decrease greenhouse gases from aviation by a third).
Lately, I've been observing how the environmental agenda in Australia has grown within the political landscape. The new environmental policies being initiated by the current government reflect a bold attempt to address the national carbon impact. The resulting cynicism and controversy which these policies then created within the Australian industry and the public I expect was something the government hadn't anticipated, at least not to the level that took place. Discord primarily instigated with consideration of the financial impact these policies would create.
It's not surprising to see such cynicism erupt in the marketplace after the protracted attack Australians faced from companies and agencies dealing in ambiguous environmental claims. It's an issue seen across many nations, including the UK, where eco conscious communities become jaded, once the ecological saving claims and incidents of 'greenwashing' by market suppliers start to become the norm.
So what is the answer? Thankfully, the global scientific community is largely in accord that a true holistic picture needs to be delivered of services and products claiming to reduce carbon impact. There is now a demand for suppliers and service providers claiming environmental savings to consider all aspects, and not just focus on one or two features with an aim to skew a public perception of environmental benefit.
It's no longer sufficient to lay claim to being the 'green' or 'low carbon' choice due to the use of recycled materials if, at the end of the day, the production of the product, transportation and maintenance generates significantly more carbon emissions than other comparable products on the market. It is this life cycle assessment of products from conception to disposal that delivers the true picture of carbon impact. A holistic analysis that's grounded in facts, which the public, government and business can comfortably rely on.
With the growing proliferation of life cycle analysis reports, the marketplace deception in this area can be addressed and the cynicism that has since developed in relation to environmental issues and policies can start to be healed. Nations can then gain a true picture and be able to knowledgably evaluate how to proceed with lowering their carbon usage.
Putting aside the need for carbon impact claims to use facts grounded in holistic analysis, is the expectations placed on engineers by politicians to deliver the solutions to climate change.
Are we being set up for a fall? Can technology truly offer all that is being demanded of it – a great performance combined with low carbon emissions? Is it really within our reach?
My optimistic response, based on personal experience, is, yes, of course. Here at Dyson, we have long understood that there is little point in a machine that doesn't perform. However, good performance hasn't been at any cost. Instead, Dyson engineers strive to bring together performance and efficiency - even if this means re-thinking the fundamentals. For us this means, cyclones, air knives, energy-efficient motors and, but most crucially, going against the grain.
However, my confidence that engineering can come up with the goods is tempered by the knowledge that developing new technology is a lengthy and laborious process. It was 15 years before I perfected my vacuum. And Dyson engineers have been working on our new motor technologies for over a decade. If we apply the same thinking to large-scale, sustainable infrastructure (which we must), how do politicians expect us to reduce carbon emissions by 80% over the next 40 years? How do we make these targets tangible?
First, we need to secure the workforce. The number of young people taking up science and engineering is in decline. Yet it is this generation which is most environmentally literate. Let's channel their genuine concern for the planet into coming up with prototype solutions in design and technology at school and beyond.
Already there are great sustainable design ideas coming out of universities. Graduate engineers we have recently recruited at Dyson worked on designs including an energy efficient water boiler, a portable solar charger, a micro wind turbine suitable for urban areas, biodegradable cutlery, recycled composites and waste-free disposable nappies. Industry and academia must take the opportunity to nurture and incubate these ideas into production.
Finally, the government must step up to the mark - with competitions, funding and support so that the most promising technologies are fast tracked and the intellectual property secured. The government needs to put the right money in the right place, now, to ensure engineers can pull the rabbit out of the hat and create a sustainable future.