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Sustainable Engineering: An Introduction to Sustainability

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Engineers in the 21st century will need to design for energy efficiency, mass efficiency, and low environmental emissions. Both near and long-term steps are needed reduce fossil resource consumption and approach zero waste generation from engineered processes and products.
This chapter is from the book

1.1. Introduction

Environmental and natural resource issues have gained increasing prominence in the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. Growing populations and affluence, around the globe, have put increasing pressure on air and water, arable land, and raw materials. Concern over the ability of natural resources and environmental systems to support the needs and wants of global populations, now and in the future, is part of an emerging awareness of the concept of sustainability.

Sustainability is a powerful, yet abstract, concept. The most commonly employed definition of sustainability is that of the Brundtland Commission report—meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987). However, a search on the definition of sustainability will return many variations on this basic concept. In engineering, incorporating sustainability into products, processes, technology systems, and services generally means integrating environmental, economic, and social factors in the evaluation of designs. While the concepts of engineering for sustainability may seem simple in the abstract, converting the concepts into the quantitative design tools and performance metrics that can be applied in engineering design is a challenge. Addressing that challenge is the topic of this textbook.

Quantitative tools available to engineers seeking to design for sustainability are continually evolving, but currently they focus on natural resource conservation and emission reduction. Few quantitative tools are currently available for incorporating social dimensions of sustainability into engineering design tools, and consequently, these issues receive limited treatment in this text.

Before beginning an examination of engineering concepts and tools, it is useful to first review some of the details of the natural resource and environmental challenges that engineers face in designing for sustainability. These topics are covered in the sections that follow.

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