“How many young people aged 15 to 16 think ‘I care about the world, I'm going to be an engineer’?” asked Jonathon Porritt, as he issued a call to arms for engineers to put sustainability at the core of their profession. Porritt is founder director of Forum for the Future, and has something of a similar profile in the UK to Al Gore. He has the same clarity in presenting his incontrovertible – never mind inconvenient – truths, but he's been there for longer and his charisma has never been in doubt.

He was speaking at Imperial College London at a forum on the place of sustainability in engineering education. The meeting had been organized in response to concerns that sustainability just isn't getting covered in university courses. Industry is worried that engineering graduates are coming to them without being able to consider the wider issues arising from their work. Certainly there were representatives of Toyota USA and Arup who were willing to subscribe to this picture. Indeed, Porritt described UK graduates as “not fit for purpose” in a sustainable world.

There is no doubt that this situation needs to change. Now that even John H. Marburger, III, President Bush's science adviser, has signed up to this year's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 4th assessment report, no one can doubt that it's as good as certain that we're seeing climate change as a result of manmade factors. It is generally agreed that an atmospheric CO2 concentration of 450 ppm is likely to keep global warming to an increase of ∼2°C over preindustrial levels, where we will avoid ‘dangerous’ climate change. But we have already put around 1.2–1.3°C into the system and we are heading for 550 ppm. At best, we have a window of 15–20 years in which to put in place the measures to sort this out. Engineering is the pivotal profession in all of this, Porritt believes. And since it is current students who will have to deliver on this, “It is monumentally stupid to let graduates leave [university] in a state of sustainability illiteracy.”

It's not as if students don't care about these issues, but they often don't see that they can be important in their future careers. Rather than take part in a huge moan about attracting young people into the profession, Porritt proclaimed, engineering should make sure it brings people into a sense of excitement about the idea of sustainability.

So what can be done? – university courses are already pressurized with content. Well, I agree with Paul W. Jowitt of Heriot Watt University that this is not necessarily about adding more in, but about new assessments that include the wider impact on communities and the environment, as well as technical problem solving. But training doesn't stop at the university gates – there is a role for industry too. As the new UK science minister, Ian Pearson pointed out, 70% of the 2020 workforce is already out of education. The great thing is that bringing in sustainability takes advantage of an issue young people care about. Perhaps then they will decide, “I'm going to be an engineer!”

Read full text on ScienceDirect

DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(07)70261-4