Later this year, world leaders will meet in Durban, South Africa, to define the political map of a low-carbon society. Politicians, expert negotiators and even carbon-credit traders all will have a place at the table, but my argument is that engineers must occupy a leadership seat.

If we take a lesson from history, we see that the last industrial revolution was pioneered by engineers who didn’t just answer questions and solve problems that were put in front of them—they defined the questions.

It has long been accepted that the world one day will have to move away from fossil fuels, a finite resource. But climate change and energy security are radically accelerating this trend. With the trajectory set, the race is on in every sector, moving at a pace that historically has occurred only in wartime. Climate change puts the engineering profession at the threshold of the biggest fundamental change to our economy and society since the industrial revolution.

As a worldwide engineering design firm with 18,000 professionals, Atkins focuses on what we can touch. This focus sharpened when we decided that reducing carbon in our designs was not an option; it was part of our day job.

We then took the step of equipping our staff with the knowledge and tools to have meaningful conversations with clients about carbon efficiency. All this was—and is—happening even as we are still defining the questions about climate change we need to answer.

It’s complex and it’s challenging, but it’s the kind of thing that should make engineers want to get out of bed in the morning.

So what is the true role of the engineer in the new low-carbon paradigm? What can we control and influence? It is not our responsibility to impose a utopian vision of society or engineer austerity. We need to use our abilities as engineers to provide design choices that meet the demands of a low-carbon economy. We must be able to design with carbon as the primary determinant.

Challenge Assumptions

The U.K.’s 2008 Climate Change Act, with its mandate to cut greenhouse-gas emissions 80% from 1990 levels by 2050, is driving good behaviors. The U.S. says it will stick to its 2010 pledge to reduce them about 17% by 2020.

But this is only the framework; it doesn’t drive innovation as hard as the market does. We must move faster as a profession and avoid inertia. Design codes and quality management systems are fine, but they must not impede progress. High-speed change is critical.

Meeting this challenge will take considerable intellectual rigor by the entire engineering community, which should see this as an opportunity to redefine our processes and challenge assumptions. The low-carbon society will need smart commercial solutions. Engineers can take a central role in this period of rapid turmoil, while we learn to wean ourselves off fossil-fuel-driven growth. We must show ownership and leadership in the face of uncertainty, and dare to think differently. The only limits are our own ambition and ingenuity.

We are now facing an engineering challenge not unlike what Isambard Brunel, the father of British engineering in the 19th Century, might have experienced in his day: largely conceptual questions with little empirical knowledge; codes that continually became outdated quickly; and rudimentary calculations with many assumptions.

We must make a concerted effort to move beyond the rhetoric. For engineers, this means moving outside our comfort zone, taking risks, learning rapidly and revolutionizing our way of thinking. Time is up for hypothesis and planning: We must turn the theories into action and results.

The challenges are serious, and the necessary changes are radical. But, as built environment professionals, we must promote a growing sense of engineering citizenship and inspire a revolution in our own field. In doing so, we can help drive a more competitively and environmentally efficient world and be seen by society as the people who “do” rather than those that “watch.”