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There are two areas where engineers see great opportunity for making a difference to climate change: cleaning up electricity, and building a sustainable transport network – Photo by Alan Blacklock courtesy of NIWA

Engineers’ take on climate change – By Susan Freeman-Greene

Climate change keeps engineers awake at night. Our engineers have told us that, after seismic resilience and water, climate change concerns them most.

Our engineers are already dealing with the consequences of climate change. The risks to infrastructure alone are immense and we’re starting to see them realised – most obviously in more extreme weather events.

Sometimes what engineers have to say is common sense. Pouring more cars into our already congested cities simply won’t work – ask anyone in Auckland’s rush hour. We need to abandon the model of the past, which was focused on the private car, and plan for tomorrow’s transport network.

This kind of planning requires longer-term goals set by decision-makers and strategies developed by the relevant specialists, including engineers.

Making a difference

In ‘Engineering a Better New Zealand: Cleaner Energy’ [see footnote], we unpick the two areas where engineers see great opportunity for making a difference to climate change: cleaning up electricity, and building a sustainable transport network.

We recommend practical actions to drive down private car demand across our urban networks. These include introducing digitally enabled variable road pricing, reflecting the real cost of peak demand. Extend this model to parking and you reduce the huge amount of space dedicated to parking in cities, freeing it up for other modes of transport.

Transport is heading for the same kind of transformation that hit mobile phones around 10 years ago. Can you imagine living your life without a smartphone? Be prepared for the same kind of shift to an autonomous vehicle future.

Electric cars will be part of our cleaner energy future, but they create traffic like any other vehicle. And for trucks and other heavy vehicles, we need to take biofuel and hydrogen seriously as an option, particularly during this transition phase. Even better, let’s shift more freight to rail and use electricity or hydrogen to power the locomotives.

Regulators will have to make brave decisions to lift their gaze to medium and long-term horizons and use these tools to drive down demand. Effective transport alternatives must be in place: next-generation mass transit that integrates with car share and other modes, including scooters and cycling.

Building resilience

Our electricity recommendations unpack how to get close to the government’s 100% renewables target – with more storage, a more coordinated market and the right price on carbon.

But renewables aren’t necessarily resilient: they are inherently vulnerable to weather-related fluctuations in their natural sources. If we become more renewable, we need to build much more resilience into our system at the same time. Storage, whether water for hydro or via battery, is a key part of the resilience equation, as are things like putting cables underground where practicable.

Our cleaner energy future depends on engineering capability, both in terms of technologies we already have and those to come. We need to train, retain and attract this kind of capability to New Zealand or we risk being left behind technologically.

A path of consensus

At Engineering New Zealand, our mission is to engineer better lives for New Zealanders – and we take that seriously. With the help of our range of expert contributors, ‘Engineering a Better New Zealand: Cleaner Energy’ steers a path of consensus that attempts to reflect what the often-silent majority of engineers are really thinking – and wishing New Zealand would just get on with.

But at the same time as raising their voices, engineers say unnecessary debate stymies progress. Many elements of a more sustainable future are crystal clear. A disproportionately vocal minority shouldn’t hold a sustainable future to ransom, especially in the transport space.

Engineers work at the heart of all New Zealand’s infrastructure, processes and systems. This gives them a unique perspective on how things work together and what needs fixing. It also positions engineers to act as glue between other professions, sectors and industries, as we grapple with these problems together.

As problem-solvers, engineers can help figure out the best way to deliver a cleaner-energy future for New Zealand, without unnecessarily politicised discourse.

Let’s take action, together, now.

* ‘Engineering A Better New Zealand: Cleaner Energy’ is a report produced by Engineering New Zealand as part of their thought-leadership series which sets out an expert engineering vision for a healthier, more prosperous New Zealand. The report can be downloaded from the Engineering New Zealand website.


Susan Freeman-Greene is the chief executive of Engineering New Zealand, the professional body that represents 22,000 engineers in New Zealand


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