Curbing climate change and sustainably supplying food, water and energy among top challenges environmental engineering can help address

December 3, 2018

These challenges call for new and expanded roles for environmental engineers, says a new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Chancellor Domenico Grasso served as chair of the committee that wrote the report.

Over the next several decades as the global population grows, society will be faced with pressing challenges such as providing reliable supplies of food and water, diminishing climate change and adapting to its impacts, and building healthy, resilient cities. These challenges call for new and expanded roles for environmental engineers, says a new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. To address the challenges, the report recommends that the environmental engineering field evolve its education, research, and practice to advance practical, impactful solutions for society’s multifaceted, vexing problems.

Environmental engineers design systems and solutions where humans and the environment intersect. The report notes that environmental engineers were instrumental in mitigating cholera and other once-prevalent waterborne diseases and in pulling the U.S. and other countries out of the depths of environmental crises such as urban smog and the massive environmental disaster at Love Canal. In early years, work focused on providing clean water and treating wastewater, drawing upon the field’s roots in sanitation system design and public health protection. More recently, the field has expanded to address air pollution, hazardous waste, contaminated soil, and emerging contaminants and has involved activities such as green manufacturing and sustainable urban design. 

However, the report points out, pollution and waterborne disease persist around the globe, and billions of people suffer from inadequate access to clean water, food, sanitation, and energy.  Meanwhile, human pressures on the environment are accelerating.  By 2050, the world’s population is anticipated to increase by 2.6 billion people, and climate change and increasing urbanization are putting new pressures on the environment and existing infrastructure.   

The five grand challenges identified in the report that environmental engineers are uniquely poised to help advance are:

  • Sustainably supply food, water, and energy
  • Curb climate change and adapt to its impacts
  • Design a future without pollution and waste
  • Create efficient, healthy, and resilient cities
  • Foster informed decisions and actions

“These challenges provide the impetus for evolving environmental engineering education, research, and practice toward broader contributions and greater impact,” said Domenico Grasso, chair of the committee that wrote the report and chancellor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. “Implementing a new model for the field will require innovations in the educational curriculum and creative approaches to foster interdisciplinary research on complex social and environmental problems.” 

Grasso and additional committee members will discuss the report further in a live event and webcast from Washington D.C. on Wednesday, Dec. 5.  Register for the event online.

In addition to the need for effective solutions to address these environmental challenges, the report also draws attention to the need for recognizing that implementing these solutions is in the best interest of our society. This would mean creating a community that is well-informed about how the environment affects human well-being and prosperity. It is also important that experts and stakeholders act in partnership to identify problems and consider alternative solutions. These elements provide a foundation for identifying and implementing policy, management, and regulatory approaches to advance results consistent with the priorities, to which environmental engineers can contribute, the committee said.

In order to evolve to best serve communities and address complex global challenges, the committee recommended adopting the following new strategies for environmental engineering education, research, and practice.

  • Environmental engineering practitioners should work collaboratively with stakeholders and other disciplines to more holistically analyze, design, and implement practical, systems-based solutions. To support these efforts, the environmental engineering field should cultivate a more diverse workforce, focusing especially on increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of the pipeline of scientists who enter this field.
  • Environmental engineering education programs should strengthen foundational knowledge in two areas: complex system dynamics and the social and behavioral dimensions of environmental challenges. In addition, programs should ensure that the scientific content of their curricula keeps pace with current and anticipated global challenges and the most promising tools for developing solutions.
  • To facilitate the collaboration necessary to meet future challenges, research universities and organizations should evolve to value and incentivize interdisciplinary work.
  • Funding organizations and research institutions can assist effective interdisciplinary collaboration through well-designed grant programs and by fostering environments where relationships and collaborations can develop organically.

The report emphasizes that this work must be carried out with a keen awareness of the needs of the people who have been historically excluded from environmental decision-making, such as those who are socio-economically disadvantaged, members of underrepresented groups, or otherwise marginalized.

This report was inspired in part by the National Academy of Engineering’s (NAE) Grand Challenges for Engineering announced in 2008. The NAE effort is aimed at inspiring young engineers across the globe to address the biggest challenges facing humanity in the 21st century.

The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the Delta Stewardship Council. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. The National Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. For more information, visit

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