Clean energy is essential in tackling climate change, and we have the solutions we need to achieve a net-zero world. But we haven’t managed to overcome the political and behavioural challenges to make the transition to green energy a reality. Young engineers can offer fresh perspectives on how to make this happen, says energy engineer Kasturi Sukhapure.
Two moments from my childhood in India shaped the direction I have taken in life to become an energy engineer and help tackle climate change.
The first was experiencing more frequent water scarcity as the Indian monsoon became more erratic. The second was living through the swine flu pandemic during my final year at high school, which made me acutely aware of humanity’s appalling relationship with the living world.
The extreme weather events around the world and the COVID-19 pandemic we have all witnessed in the last 18 months have brought my childhood concerns into sharp focus once again.
It is understandable to feel overwhelmed when thinking about these global issues and how they might affect the future but we must harness this feeling to act positively.
One thing is crystal clear – we must act now and we know what we need to do: transform our economy away from fossil fuels to one that is net-zero and resilient to climate change impacts. We also need to transform our relationship with the living world and respect all life with whom we share our planet. In my view, this means questioning our current economic paradigm and the endless search for growth.
If we get it right, this transition will also deliver many other benefits. I can imagine a world with cleaner air in cities, stronger communities, better jobs, restored natural habitats, and a kinder attitude between people and towards animals.
Empowering young people
One of the most important steps towards achieving a sustainable future is to engage with and empower young people. The world we live in today is ever-changing and we must look at future challenges through the fresh perspectives provided by new generations.
This is why Mott MacDonald has partnered with multinational electricity and gas utility company National Grid for the Global Youth Engineering Climate Conference, a key stepping stone in the lead up to COP26.
This virtual conference, the theme of which is the green energy transition, is primarily aimed at 16 to 35-year-olds. The programme has been scheduled across time zones to maximise opportunities for a global audience to participate.
I am pleased to see the panellists include high-profile speakers from government, industry and academia as well as climate activists. Interactive workstreams will focus on four key issues for the transition to green energy: green skills, energy access, individual action and developing green grids
The transition to a climate-resilient net-zero world will bring enormous opportunities for green skills and jobs. The IEA’s Net Zero Pathway, which was requested by the COP26 presidency to feed into the high-level negotiations, estimates that the transition to clean energy will create 30M new jobs by 2030 globally. At Mott MacDonald, we have our Renewable Energy Academy, a learning and development programme for employees transitioning to renewable energy from other energy subsectors and infrastructure sectors.
However, there will be some job losses which could disproportionately affect certain communities. It is crucial that the energy transition is also a ‘just transition’. So it is heartening to see that, alongside transforming our own skills, all the work we do at Mott MacDonald has a central aim – to change people’s lives for the better.
This transition does not need to compromise the sustainability goals of universal energy access. Many studies and an increasing number of real-world examples have shown that we can create a clean and equitable energy system at the same time. The IEA’s Net Zero Pathway, for example, ensures energy access for all while reaching net-zero emissions in 2050.
We urgently need governments and companies to deliver big structural changes to our economy. There is no more time for greenwash or delay. The science says that achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions is possible but it will require a rapid transformation in the way energy is produced and transported, and far-reaching changes to land use, agriculture and natural ecosystems. But it is not only a structural challenge – this will also require individual support and participation. We must mobilise the whole of society and climate change must be at the heart of every decision we make.
Developing green grids
A clean energy system will have electricity at its core. The main solution for decarbonising transport and buildings will be through electrification. For example, total electricity consumption in India will need to increase fivefold just to meet the country’s growing demand for cooling and the electrification of the transport sector, including two-wheelers, cars, buses and trains (source: Energy Transitions Commission). This can be largely met by India's vast solar and wind resources but as elsewhere will have to be accompanied by more flexibility, storage and demand-side response.
It is increasingly clear that advanced digital technologies and smart solutions for managing grids more flexibly are critical in managing this escalating demand and intermittent supply. Delivering these truly green grids is one of the main tasks for engineers in the coming decades.
Since the Industrial Revolution, advances in engineering have delivered prosperity but also caused climate change and environmental destruction. I believe that rethinking engineering will be essential to the transition to a net-zero and resilient global economy. There are more and more examples of building less, building clever and building more efficiently.
The Global Youth Engineering Climate Conference is a great opportunity for young people to share their ideas on these big issues and make a positive difference. It is an important platform to make our voices heard ahead of COP26. We know what must be done. Now is the time to play our part in the green energy transition.
The Global Youth Engineering Climate Conference is being held on 7 and 8 September. For further information and to register, click here.
At the conference, Mott MacDonald is hosting a networking table on the energy-transport nexus (5.30-6.30pm BST on 7 September and 8.30-9.30am BST on 8 September). Senior engineer Esha Kapila and project principal Luke Strickland will be participating in the interactive workstreams on green skills and energy access.