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How to engineer a zero-carbon future

Most of us worry about climate change and realise urgent action is needed, but what inspires someone to take on the job of figuring out how to save the planet?

University of Canterbury (UC) mechanical engineering Professor Susan Krumdieck, a pioneer in the emerging field of Transition Engineering, has written the world’s first book on engineering the carbon downshift, including tackling the huge issues of climate change and world decline in oil supply.

“When my son was a boy, he was getting really worried about climate change. He wanted to know that sustainable energy – my research area at the time – would be the solution,” Professor Krumdieck says.

“I remember the conversation 15 years ago when I had to come clean with my son. I had to tell him that even if all the solar and wind and other sustainability work was successful, it wouldn’t change the unsustainable use of fossil fuels.

“When your child, with total faith in you, says: ‘Well Mum, you have to figure out what will work,’ then you have to challenge your assumptions.”

Her new book, Transition Engineering: Building a Sustainable Future, examines new strategies emerging in response to the mega-issues of global climate change, decline in conventional oil supply, scarcity of key industrial minerals, and local environmental constraints. The book is unique in that it does not offer solutions, but rather the methodology for discovering innovative changes in unsustainable systems.

“All of our unsustainable energy and material use is possible through successful engineering, therefore achieving transition will require evolution in engineering”, the author says.

“We can’t predict the future, but we know this century will be different from the last. More than 90% of current energy supply is fossil hydrocarbons. Massive transformational change of everything is the realistic mitigation of catastrophic climate crash.”

Transition Engineering, like all other engineering fields, has science-based fundamentals and methodologies for achieving the deliverables. In this case the deliverables are innovations in how to change a particular system to downshift carbon.

“Fifty years from now fossil fuels will not be part of the consumer lifestyle. That transition starts now, with thousands of different shift projects, every one involving re-engineering and re-developing by the Re-Generation, using much more resourcefulness than resources.”

Over the past two decades Transition Engineering has been developed through research and collaborations across a range of disciplines around the world. Professor Krumdieck says her new book teaches the Transition Engineering methodology in a way that engineers can begin applying it in their work.

“Transition Engineering is a methodology for working on complex social and economic problems, but there are usually engineered systems at the heart of the issues. Transition Engineers work with communities and organisations to re-develop for the next century,” she says.

“The only way to transition energy systems into the low-carbon systems of the future is for professional engineers in every field to do the job of Transition Engineering. Policymakers, economists and the general public have a vital role – demand a rapid transition.”

The book’s content has been taught in universities in Europe and New Zealand. It has also been used in professional development courses. Transition Engineering projects have been carried out in transportation, housing, commercial buildings, products, airlines, agriculture and energy use.

Professor Krumdieck has taught energy engineering at UC for 17 years. Her research focuses on developing engineering methods and innovative technologies that reduce fossil fuel production and consumption. She is an expert in developing new ideas for achieving decarbonisation in transportation systems and urban regeneration. Professor Krumdieck is also the co-founder and a trustee of the Global Association for Transition Engineering (GATE), she serves on the editorial board for six journals, including Energies, Energy Conservation & Management, Social Business and Biophysical Economics, and she has edited special issues of Energy Policy, Energies, and Sustainability.

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