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Gen Z water engineer: Climate change is the space race of my generation

August 12, 2022

By Tori Thomas

Only by addressing climate change today, can we create the resilient and sustainable communities of tomorrow. Net zero is our goal.

My generation—Gen Z—is riddled with climate anxiety. We continue to watch global emissions reductions goals pass by unmet. At the same time, we see increasing droughts, wildfires, and other climate-related natural disasters covered constantly by the 24/7 news cycle.

A 2021 research survey published in The Lancet talked to 10,000 people aged 16-25 in 10 countries (including the US) on their climate-related feelings. The survey found that 84% were moderately worried (59% very/extremely worried), and more than 45% said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning. What’s more is that 83% said that they think people have failed to take care of the planet.

By any version of measurement, that’s a lot. We know that without unprecedented reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of 50-55% by 2030 and net zero by 2050, global warming will surpass 1.5°C in the decades following today. This will lead to irreversible loss of the most fragile ecosystems. Crisis after crisis will impact people—and the most vulnerable people most severely. 

New tech to economically treat nontraditional water can provide a resilient, cost-effective supply for the 21st century. Here’s what James McCall says is on tap during Stantec’s Race to Zero Summit.

I think for many people, the consequences associated with doing nothing with regards to climate change results falls into that “can’t fathom it’s possible scenario, so let’s not even think about it” or the “kick the can down the road” category. For Gen Zers like me, this means that as we enter our 30s, our fate of living through catastrophic climate change, largely set by generations before us, could be sealed.

But it doesn’t have to be.

The race to zero: driving a resilient and carbon positive water future

One of the reasons I pursued a career in water resources engineering and planning with Stantec is our pledge to combat climate change. Ideas to combat climate change aren’t exclusive to just one industry, and at Stantec, each of our business lines are tackling this crisis with fervor and innovation.

As water crises like shortages, droughts, and overuse continue to impact our communities, driving efficiencies in water industry processes towards carbon zero have become a must. In January 2022, the Stantec Institute for Water Technology & Policy hosted the Race to Zero Summit with a goal of driving a resilient and carbon positive water future. 

It’s my hope that investing in climate mitigation technology and strategies can be the space race of my generation.

The two-day virtual summit brought together 400-plus stakeholders from across the hydrological cycle. The focus? Exploring the state of climate mitigation for the water industry, research progress made to date, and the needed actions—including financing—for the water industry to achieve carbon zero.

I imagine many people don’t realize that water and climate change are inextricably linked. But they are. It takes a significant amount of energy to treat and distribute water, leading the water sector to contribute an estimated 10% of global carbon emissions.

Energy production and most industrial processes are also heavily reliant on water. Impaired bodies of water are a significant contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, with untreated sewage and fertilizer-rich agricultural runoff being key contributors. Our aging infrastructure is not designed for the extreme flooding, droughts, and temperature variations expected with climate change.

Optimism flows

Attendees of the Race to Zero Summit heard from speakers from McKinsey & Company, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, American Water Works Association, XPV Water Partners, SUEZ, Water Environment Federation, Portland State University, Stantec, and special guest Mark van Loosdrecht from Delft University of Technology. I was lucky enough to listen in on the two days of conversation and served as a facilitator for the breakout discussions, digging in deeper to hear what attendees saw as opportunities and barriers in this significant undertaking. 

Listen to Sam Saintonge discuss how applying adequate capital, sector expertise, and a patient investment approach can play a key role in mitigating climate change.

As a young engineer, what I heard left me with multiple reasons to be hopeful. While “curing” or “reversing” climate change often sounds insurmountable, two speakers—McKinsey’s Aaron Bielenberg and Sam Saintonge from XPV—discussed how over 85% of today’s global emissions can be abated with already demonstrated technology. It’s now mainly a matter of mass adoption. But we’ve got to move now. To meet net zero by 2050, we need 60% of incremental investments to occur in the next 15 years.

Here are some other things I learned that tell me the water industry has a huge opportunity to innovate and reduce greenhouse gas emissions: 

  • About 80% of sewage around the world still isn’t treated and emits large amounts of greenhouse gases. Increasing low carbon water treatment globally presents a big opportunity for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing quality of life (Saintonge).
  • Healthy wetlands account for 20-30% of carbon soil storage globally and numerous environmental services. Let’s protect them! (Saintonge).
  • New desalination technologies to economically treat nontraditional waters (municipal and industrial wastewater, seawater, brackish water, etc.) could provide a resilient, cost-effective water supply for the 21st century (McCall).
  • Technological improvements to wastewater treatment and recovering the valuable resources in wastewater can help reach carbon neutral treatment status (Van Loodsrecht).

Mark van Loosdrecht talks about what research and processes are needed to get the wastewater industry on a carbon-neutral path during Stantec’s Race to Zero Summit.

A global team effort

A recent study looking at accountability and action revealed that the environmental changes seen during the pandemic (less pollution, cleaner water, etc.) have made almost 70% of Millennials and Gen Zs feel more optimistic that climate change can be reversed. This is big, considering that the same study shows that Millennials and Gen Zs’ money and time follow their values. That means brand relationships are made based on a business or organization’s environmental stance.

Status quo bias is when someone has more remorse for bad outcomes from action versus bad outcomes resulting from inaction. The status quo response of choosing inaction over action has defined much of the response to climate change.

My generation is fed up with political fighting and inaction. We want and need to do more. It was said in the 1960s that putting a man on the moon was impossible. Well, it wasn’t. It’s also been said that the changes required to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions are unprecedented.

It’s my hope that investing in climate mitigation technology and strategies can be the space race of my generation. We are ready to put our wallet where our hearts are, are you?

How will we get to net zero? McKinsey’s Aaron Bielenberg sets the 10 key requirements for water’s net zero future during the Race to Zero Summit sharing.

This summit left me feeling proud to work for Stantec and hopeful that we can achieve accelerated greenhouse gas reductions. Aaron Bielenberg’s talk shared the 10 key requirements to move towards a 1.5°C degree pathway at the Summit.

What do you think are the top requirements to move to a 1.5°C pathway and what actions are required for their implementation? I hope to enter my 30s not with a sealed fate of climate devastation but proud of the collective actions taken to combat climate change and the opportunities for a happy and healthy life. Only by addressing climate change today can we create the resilient and sustainable communities of tomorrow.

  • Tori Thomas

    Based in Colorado, Tori is a water resources EIT. Known for her communication skills, she’s responsible for doing research and technical writing, as well as creating geomorphological assessments.

    Contact Tori
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