Engineers help create many of the structures, devices, and processes we use and depend upon every day, as well as figuring out how to make existing systems work better. High-school engineering classes can provide many opportunities to explore ways to mitigate global warming and climate change, including finding ways to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions 

Embedded EnergyThe term ‘embedded energy’ is sometimes used to describe energy used to manufacture a product. Since energy use has a direct correlation to the GHG emissions, this is sometimes described as ‘embedded carbon’.

When looking at sustainability, we often see ideas that appear to be good, but may have damaging long-term impacts that can even dwarf the immediate and visible impacts. Some of the great feats of engineering have wound up causing ‘unintended consequences’, because they failed to look at the whole system or failed to do a comprehensive life-cycle analysis. Sometimes this is the result of designers and engineers restricted to working within boundaries that do not allow a more complete analysis, and sometimes the sponsoring company or institution wants to avoid consideration of factors that could complicate the project or increase costs.

The following are a few example questions that might help initiate or deepen student discussion and exploration – 

General Questions

  • What is the average per-capita energy use in the world? In the developed world? In the U.S.?
  • How can we reduce our demand for energy by 25%? By 50%?
  • Can the U.S. become ‘climate neutral?
  • How might your school produce energy renewably on campus? What greater efficiencies might be created?

Energy – Related Questions 

  • How can we harness more wind and solar energy? Can we do this in locations where the power is needed? 
    • (When we generate power at industrial-scale power generating stations and then send it hundreds of miles, there are significant losses in transmission.)
  • Do we need to find safer ways to extract oil and gas—or ways to eliminate fossil fuels?
  • What GHG emissions are created in the manufacture and construction of a nuclear power plant?
  • What GHG emissions are created in the mining and refining of uranium and the manufacture and eventual disposal of the fuel rods used in nuclear reactors?

Engineering Profession – Related Questions

  • What will be the roles for engineering in a world where sustainability and reducing global warming are top priorities?
    • Will you be prepared for these jobs?
  • What might various engineering specialties contribute to reducing or mitigating the climate crisis?
    • For example, can chemical engineering develop more efficient ways to capture solar energy for electricity, store energy, or generate heat or electricity without GHG?

Life Cycle Analysis and Unintended Consequences – Related Questions

  • How can life cycle analysis and consideration of possible unintended consequences help us evaluate projects in terms of sustainability?
  • What can we learn about unintended consequences from the nuclear catastrophes at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima?

Big Ideas

  • Clear boundaries can be important to maintain project focus, but operating within a holistic decision-making framework is critical for life cycle analysis and examining the whole system within which the project will function.

Additional Resources for Engineering

Also see Resources That Apply To Many Subject Areas and Teacher-Recommended Readings for Students.