Science Wednesday: Environmental Protection and the Green Economy

Go to EPA's Science Month pageAbout the author: Diana Bauer, Ph.D. is an environmental engineer in EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research where she serves as the Sustainability Team Leader.

I have been pleased in the past several months to see the “Green Economy” emerge as a priority for the nation. As an engineer who has been engaged in environmental research, I am particularly excited about new roles for engineering and new opportunities to avoid environmental problems through better design.

When I was in my first job as a mechanical engineer a couple of decades ago, I was dismayed when my colleagues and managers told me that I shouldn’t concern myself with where or how my work was used. My job as an engineer was to solve challenging technical problems. Others had the responsibility of worrying about the broader context, including what technology we should be investing in and how the technology would interact with people and the environment.

Later on, working at EPA and elsewhere, I have met many environmental professionals who were skeptical that engineers could have much impact for preventing or avoiding environmental problems, precisely because of engineers’ narrow focus.

In the years since that first job, I have enjoyed watching and contributing to fields such as Green Engineering, Green Chemistry, and Sustainable Engineering as they emerged and began to mature. These fields will be required as the nation addresses climate change through green energy and invests in transportation, and water infrastructure.

To contribute fully to the new green economy, engineers need to understand the environmental and social implications of their work.

National investments present an opportunity for EPA to collaborate with other departments and agencies across the government to ensure that holistic, multimedia environmental considerations are integrated into the development of green energy technologies, transportation, water infrastructure, and green building. Efforts such as these may reduce the future environmental issues that EPA will have to address with regulation.

One area where cross-government collaboration is already occurring is in Green Building. Commercial and residential buildings currently account for about 40% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from electricity and heating. The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is coordinating across the federal government the Net-Zero Energy, High Performance Green Buildings Research and Development Plan to dramatically reduce energy consumption in buildings. The plan holistically addresses the challenge by focusing on water efficiency, storm water management, sustainable materials management, and indoor environmental quality.

Cross-cutting agendas such as this one can help engineers of my generation and those following to broaden our perspective and learn how to build a green economy while protecting the air, water, and land.