Decarbonisation: How your future career can help us get to net zero emissions
What degree to choose if you want to deliver an environmentally sustainable future.
What degree to choose if you want to deliver an environmentally sustainable future.
Within the next eight years, the Australian government has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to at least 43 per cent below 2005 levels.
To achieve this, it has promised to improve the efficiency of vehicles, phase down use of hydrofluorocarbons, reduce coal-powered electricity and develop renewable energies, and create a low emissions technology roadmap.
In line with the Paris Agreement – to keep global warming to no more than 1.5°C – the longer-term aim is to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.
These important goals will require massive changes across almost all industries, but as UNSW Professor John Fletcher explains, change also offers huge opportunities – especially for young people keen to use their skills and choose a career which can help deliver an environmentally sustainable future.
Prof. Fletcher leads one of the networks (Electrification and Energy Systems) in the NSW Decarbonisation Innovation Hub which brings together government, industry, and researchers to advance research, development, and collaboration in critical areas of emissions reductions, and fast-track technologies to assist the decarbonisation efforts.
And he says there are a wide-range of careers that will play an important role in decarbonisation efforts now and for many years into the future – many of which may not be immediately obvious.
“For young people looking ahead and wanting to make an impact with regards to decarbonisation, this is a multi-decades effort and it will represent a whole career for some. If you get involved now, then you could quite easily still be involved in 2060,” Prof. Fletcher says.
“We know that this is a huge challenge ahead of us. But it’s also a huge opportunity. Young people at school might hear about climate change and just get the message that it’s a crisis – but actually it’s also a real chance for them to get involved in some way and make a significant impact.
“A lot of those opportunities manifest through engineering, whether it’s more electrification or developing and integrating renewable energy technologies, but there are also many, many ways people in careers outside of engineering will be needed in these efforts to decarbonise.
“We also need people to finance the new green technologies, and policy-makers, and communicators who can help translate the technical knowledge into ideas that governments and the public can understand.”
Here, we highlight a range of careers that young people may consider if they have a desire to play their part on the road to net zero.
Around one-third of Australia’s carbon dioxide emissions come from the way our electricity is generated – namely by burning fossil fuels.
Roughly 25-30 per cent of electricity currently being produced comes from renewable sources (wind, solar, hydro etc).
Therefore, to achieve 100 per cent of electricity from renewables, the systems need to grow by a magnitude of three to four in Australia alone.
Opportunities abound for those keen to design, install and operate renewable energy generating systems, or who have an interest in designing and constructing energy efficient buildings. The clean energy revolution is the primary focus for renewable energy engineers who work together with engineers across also disciplines as well as architects, sustainability practitioners, planners, policy makers and the finance sector.
The use of hydrogen as a fuel has the potential to significantly reduce carbon emissions, especially when it is produced using electrical energy from renewable sources – such as wind or solar.
Significant career opportunities are available for those interested in working on the development of new, cheaper and greener ways to produce hydrogen from water by electrolysis that does not include the use of fossil fuels.
Looking ahead to 2050 and beyond, there will be important roles in a growing a range of industries around ‘green hydrogen’ – a sector that will generate hydrogen using renewable or low carbon electrical energy.
Hydrogen has important potential uses in sectors where emissions are particularly challenging to reduce, such as chemical production, steel manufacturing, long-haul road freight, shipping and aviation.
Green hydrogen can also be stored and shipped to countries where renewable energy is harder to produce.
Power conversion is a vital component of decarbonisation, as this is the way energy produced by renewables is actually transformed into a usable form, for example, to inject into the electricity grid -. the critical integration of renewable energy into our energy systems displacing emissions-based generation.
Power conversion is also critical in electric vehicles where conversion of power from the battery to supply the AC motor is essential in controlling the torque at the wheel and whether that torque is accelerating or decelerating the vehicle.
Electrification of vehicles and machines and heating systems in buildings, significantly helps decarbonisation efforts by eliminating the need to burn fossil fuels.
In the shorter-term, making existing electrical machines more efficient can have a big impact – since around 65 per cent of all the world’s electrical energy is ultimately used by an electrical machine.
Therefore, electrical power engineers helping to design and build more efficient electrical machines are playing a major role in reducing emissions.
Energy storage is a vital component on the path to a net zero future, since it will help drive the growth of electric transportation – as well as deal with the intermittency issues related to renewables such as solar and wind.
Developing better and more efficient battery technologies will increase the range of electric cars and trucks, increasing demand for such vehicles and reducing the number of gas-guzzling motors on the road.
Improved residential batteries are required to store more power from rooftop solar panels, while grid batteries can be developed further to utilise ever greater amounts of energy produced by wind or solar farms.
Other forms of energy storage, such as pumped hydro and solar thermal, are also expected to be areas of growth to aid decarbonisation.
Developing more ways to recycle and re-use existing products means that new goods – which require energy and therefore increased emissions to produce – are not needed.
Therefore, improved waste management systems can play their part in Australia’s decarbonisation efforts.
In addition, better recycling of certain materials such as rare earth minerals, are important to ensure we do not deplete the limited resources available. That’s especially vital since many rare earth elements are key components in green technologies such as solar panels, batteries, and EV motors.
Environmental management experts create sustainable solutions across a wide range of industries to help protect the planet.
If you immediately think of mobile phones or WiFi signals when you hear the word telecommunications, it might be tricky to understand why that would have any relevance to decarbonisation.
But the new electricity grids of the future will require ever-improved control systems and that needs better communications and better data transfer.
Precise control is important because any delays in the system increase instability – and that control becomes increasingly harder as information is being fed in from more and more parts of the network.
Telecommunications engineers are therefore needed to ensure the grids that need to be built to help reduce emissions are able to run smoothly and efficiently.
Mechanical engineers apply scientific and engineering knowledge to develop, manufacture and operate machines and tools, which can then be used to develop things.
A number of those manufactured components will be used in products that are helping the decarbonisation efforts – such as parts for wind turbines, for example – so advanced mechanical engineering and manufacturing skills are critical.
Being able to make the components in a wind turbine lighter and more efficient means they use less energy, and using less energy reduces emissions.
Improved design of power-producing machines, such as electric generators and engines, also plays an important role in decarbonisation, as well as reducing wastage in power-using machines, such as refrigeration and air-conditioning systems.
The creation of lightweight materials could mean cheaper buildings which are faster to build and use less energy to construct.
Skilled building designers of the future will be able to use those materials in new and innovative ways, which could potentially reduce our domestic energy consumption – thus having an impact on decarbonisation efforts.
Cities of the future not only need to be more efficient and convenient, but also more sustainable to allow for environmentally-friendly growth.
Urban planners analyse how people move around and interact with each other and can create new ways of living that can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
It requires a lot of energy to not only move people, but also products, around high-density cities and clever urban planning is helping to reduce the overall impact those type of conurbations have on the environment.
Autonomous systems and robotics are further ways we can reduce our energy consumption in the future, and these will require skilled computer scientists to design, construct and utilise the hardware and software.
With regards to autonomous vehicles or electric drones for delivery of goods, these could significantly reduce the number of fossil-fuel burning cars and trucks on the road.
Creating an airborne vehicle that can fly by itself to deliver a pizza might not sound like it would have much impact on emissions – but just think how many pizzas are delivered every single day and you might realise how a small change can soon add up.
A massive part of the decarbonisation efforts involves financing, because without investment – from either governments or corporate financers – none of the solutions to the fundamental problems are possible.
Having people work in the financial sector who understand ways to structure investments to make emission-reducing projects economically feasible is therefore vital.
Young people with business skills will also be important on the pathway to net zero in terms of taking decisions which are not only profit-driven, but also environmentally friendly.
The engineering and science behind a lot of decarbonisation efforts can be quite complex and confusing.
Having people able to translate those efforts into more simple and understandable ideas will help the overall aim of reducing emissions in a variety of ways.
Being able to clearly explain to policy-makers the benefits of new greener technology can help uptake, which also applies when informing the general public of ways they can assist – as well as why it is so important to do so.