In plain terms, sustainability engineering is an engineering solution to a sustainability problem. In the 21st century, our planet’s sustainability challenges include resource depletion, pollution, deforestation, consumption footprints, and the umbrella issue of climate change and its related effects.
Sustainability engineering uses processes and products that reduce environmental and social impacts, limit resource consumption, and dispose responsibly of waste products.
2015 marked a landmark moment for sustainability engineering. In 2015, the United Nations set forward its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These SDGs were adopted by all 193 member states of the United Nations.
By signing, members promised to follow the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which outlines five “areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet”: people, planet, prosperity, peace, and partnership. The SDGs target the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.
Sustainability engineering works alongside the mission of green engineering. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), green engineering is “the design, commercialization, and use of processes and products in a way that reduces pollution, promotes sustainability, and minimizes risk to human health and the environment without sacrificing economic viability and efficiency.”
With similar-sounding goals, sustainability engineering, and green engineering might look identical. However, sustainability engineering also addresses the challenge of providing for future generations. It has a decidedly human component: It is intent on providing for generations to come.
According to a 2021 report from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), “the role of engineers is vital in addressing basic human needs such as alleviating poverty, supplying clean water and energy, responding to natural disasters, constructing resilient infrastructure and bridging the development divide, among many other actions, leaving no one behind.” This report, titled “Engineering for Sustainable Development,” is uniquely engineering-focused. It addresses each of the SDGs with the question of sustainable engineering in mind. It also contains the solution (“How engineering can make it happen”) for each of the 17 goals.
Since the 2015 adoption of the SDGs, companies around the world have adopted their own organization-specific sustainable engineering goals. In a domino effect, the SDGs spurred organizations worldwide to make sustainable development a priority. In their own mission statements and agendas, more and more businesses promise to minimize the environmental effects of their products throughout the entire product life cycle, from conception to disposal.
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