The importance of environmental sustainability in engineering, and a case study.
Increasingly, all professionals are having to consider the impact their work has on the environment, and engineers are often in a position to make decisions which will have particularly significant repercussions. Unfortunately, these decisions are rarely simple, and can often involve weighing up conflicting ethical claims which can seem incommensurable (i.e. it may not be possible to measure one against the other).
The IET Rules of Conduct state that an engineer should take “all reasonable steps to avoid waste of natural resources, damage to the environment, and damage or destruction of man-made products”, but how can we decide what is “reasonable”? When does a cost become punitively high for a relatively small benefit? What if minimising environmental impact leads to other ethical problems (e.g. when goods or services become too expensive to be accessed by anybody but the rich)? Finally, environmental concerns can sometimes compete with each other, e.g. when cutting down on carbon emissions means sacrificing biodiversity.