Fighting Climate Change: How Individuals Can Make a Difference

As the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) came to an end in Glasgow, Scotland, the overall reaction to the outcomes of the summit has been one of disappointment. From a public apology by the U.K.’s COP 26 President Alok Sharma, to climate commitments that fell short of expectations, to a critique that the summit was “bad for nature,” many commentators have expressed frustration at the progress world leaders are making to stall the effects of the climate crisis.

But while global progress creeps along at a snail’s pace, there are reasons for optimism. Powerful entrepreneurial initiatives and new research demonstrate how individuals and groups outside the diplomatic realm can make a difference in the fight against climate change.

Cleaning Up Our Oceans

I’ve previously written about the admirable work of Dutch inventor, entrepreneur and former engineering student Boyan Slat, whose organization, The Ocean Cleanup, works to remove trash from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). The Ocean Cleanup recently brought its first large-scale cleanup system (known as System 002 or “Jenny”) to the GPGP for a 12-week test, and the results were remarkable — the system removed more than 63,000 pounds of plastic debris from the ocean. The organization plans to continue its cleanup efforts with System 002 while also moving forward with the development of System 003, which is planned to be three times larger. According to a statement from The Ocean Cleanup, “the organization expects to deploy a fleet of ten systems capable of reducing 50% of the gyre every five years.”

Boyan Slat is an inspiring example of how the combination of scientific research and an entrepreneurial spirit can have a measurable impact on our planet. STEM education can be a catalyst for this approach to sustainability by the next generation of scientists and engineers as they work to solve the big challenges facing our planet. We need to get our students excited about these challenges — and opportunities!

Setting Our Sights on Solar

Another way individuals could make an impact on climate change is through the use of solar energy. New research published in Nature Communications found that if just 50% of rooftops had solar panels (rooftop solar photovoltaics technology), we could meet the world’s energy needs. As the study’s authors shared in this World Economic Forum conversation, “rooftop solar has huge potential to alleviate energy poverty and put clean, pollution-free power back in the hands of consumers worldwide.”

This type of research is important because it provides concrete data to guide solutions and actions that could play a significant role in reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.

Expanding Education

Improving access to affordable and clean energy supports United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a “shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.” Our work at ABET directly supports SDG 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. In addition to working toward this essential goal, there are opportunities for educators in the STEM fields to expand upon it by encouraging the next generation of scientists and engineers to take innovative approaches to problem solving, particularly for global-scale issues like sustainability.

As today’s students choose their future paths, they can benefit from taking a cutting-edge approach to problem-solving. We don’t need to wait for government leaders to make good on their COP 26 promises. With examples like Boyan Slat and his innovative solutions to cleaning up our oceans, or the authors of the solar panel study who quantified the potential for cleaner forms of energy, I’m hopeful that significant progress can be made by individuals and small teams working toward the common goal of making our world a better place.

Do you know of an individual or program with a demonstrated vision and commitment that challenges the status-quo in technical education? Consider nominating them for the ABET Innovation Award, which supports innovation in STEM education. This year’s recipient was the Villanova University College of Engineering Career Compass Program, a mandatory undergraduate program that stimulates and develops broad-based innovative leadership and management skills. To learn more about the nomination process and criteria involved, or to nominate one of your peers, click here.

Executive Director & CEO of ABET, the global accreditor of college and university programs in the STEM disciplines.