Engineering geology has an important role to play in sustainable development. This is due to the unique perspective that engineering geologists have of the interfaces between: science and engineering; the natural and built environments; the past, present and future. This paper examines the role of engineering geology in delivering the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and demonstrates that there is a strong link between the knowledge, skills and activities of engineering geologists and the delivery of all 17 goals. The study includes a detailed evaluation of all 169 SDG targets and highlights the key impact areas where engineering geologists already contribute to sustainable development, as well as identifying opportunities for contributions to be strengthened. It is hoped that this paper will empower engineering geologists to confidently communicate the value of their role, act responsibly and exert their influence to drive positive outcomes in terms of sustainable development in everything that they do.
Supplementary material: Mapping exercise of typical engineering geology knowledge, skills and activities against all 169 SDG targets and related indicators is available at https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.c.5778817
Thematic collection: This article is part of the Sustainability in Engineering Geology & Hydrogeology collection available at: https://www.lyellcollection.org/cc/sustainability-in-engineering-geology-and-hydrogeology
The concept of sustainable development is widely considered to have been formalized by the 1987 Brundtland Report (Sachs 2015; Shi et al. 2019; IISD 2021; Sachs et al. 2021) where it was defined as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (WCED 1987). This report proposed the establishment of a United Nations (UN) programme on sustainable development resulting in a succession of international frameworks including Agenda 21 (UNCED 1992), the Millennium Development Goals (United Nations 2000) and, most recently, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (United Nations 2015).
Over time, these frameworks evolved and the emphasis on future generations was replaced by socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable and economically viable development (Basiago 1999; Sachs 2015; Mensah 2019; Cisneros-Montemayor et al. 2021; Sachs et al. 2021). This ‘three pillars’ model, which seeks to balance social, environmental and economic sustainability, is often referred to as ‘People, Planet, Profit’ or the ‘Triple Bottom Line’ (Elkington 1994). More recently, a foundational fourth pillar, referred to variably as culture, politics, institutions or governance, has also been introduced to reflect the importance of wellbeing, ethics and dignity in sustainable development, and the role of organizations in its delivery: for example, through the introduction of Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) with finance and business practice (Hawkes 2001; Littig and Grießler 2005; UCLG 2010; Burford et al. 2013). Achieving sustainable development is complex, requiring solutions to a wide range of issues and recognizing that trade-offs may be needed. Challenges hindering pathways to sustainable development (e.g. food insecurity) or threatening development gains (e.g. climate change) must be viewed from diverse perspectives to find equitable and balanced solutions. Both individual and collective action are required to harmonize the four pillars and avert environmental and social disaster (IGS 2019).
Engineering geologists have a key role to play, in applying their unique knowledge and skills, and offering their own perspectives to help tackle global sustainable development challenges. The contribution of engineering geology to some of the UN SDGs has already been highlighted in publications such as Gill (2017), Cook (2019), Dottridge and Smith (2020) and Geological Society of London (2020), as well as to the preceding Agenda 21 framework by Nathanail (2013). This paper seeks to go further by demonstrating that engineering geologists can make a meaningful contribution to all of the UN SDGs through their projects, initiatives and institutions.
The United Nations SDGs
The UN SDGs were set out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (UN Resolution A/RES/70/1), which was adopted by all UN member states in 2015. There are 17 SDGs (Fig. 1) supported by 169 targets and 231 unique indicators to allow measurement of progress. The goals collectively aim to eradicate extreme poverty, end unsustainable consumption patterns, and facilitate sustained and inclusive economic growth, social development, and environmental protection (United Nations 2015). Covering a broad policy agenda, the UN SDGs were developed in consultation with hundreds of thousands of participants and a range of stakeholder groups, including the science and engineering communities.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development makes clear that the 17 UN SDGs are global in nature and should be applied universally (United Nations 2015). While some previous development frameworks focused exclusively on developing countries (so called ‘Global South’), the goals and targets are relevant to all nations. Realizing the transformational vision set out in Agenda 2030 depends on societies from all stages of development status collectively achieving all of the UN SDGs. The governments of the UN Member States are responsible for implementation, embedding the goals and targets into their nation's policies and strategies, and monitoring progress.
Agenda 2030 emphasizes that the UN SDGs are an integrated and indivisible framework for sustainability. The interdependencies between the natural and built environment, social and economic systems are complex (Nilsson et al. 2016; International Council for Science 2017; Allen et al. 2019). If not considered in an integrated way, positive progress towards one goal could unintentionally hinder progress towards others. Therefore, a holistic strategy for addressing the UN SDGs is required to maximize progress towards all goals and minimize trade-offs (Singh et al. 2018; Bryan et al. 2019). Focusing too narrowly on specific goals and targets must be avoided (Allen et al. 2019; Goubran 2019; Maes et al. 2019; Moyer and Bohl 2019).
A number of other UN frameworks have been developed to complement and support delivery of the UN SDGs. For example, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–30 aims to reduce disaster risk and losses (aligned to SDG 11 (Sustainable cities and communities)) (UNDRR 2015a); the Paris Climate Change Agreement aims to enhance the implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (aligned to SDG 13 (Climate action)) (UNFCCC 2015); and the New Urban Agenda (Habitat III) aims to support well-planned and well-managed urbanization (also aligned to SDG 11) (United Nations 2017). The UN also support delivery of the SDGs through their other programmes such as the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR).
Geoscience, engineering geology and the United Nations SDGs
Science, technology and innovation each play a key role in achieving the UN SDGs (Gluckman 2016), with a number of the targets recognizing the need to strengthen the science–policy interface. Geoscientists possess deep domain knowledge of natural systems and processes that makes them very well placed to tackle the environmental issues covered by the UN SDGs. This understanding is required for the monitoring, protection, management and restoration of the natural environment (Lubchenco et al. 2015; Gill 2017; Gill and Smith 2021). However, despite their unique skills and knowledge, geoscientists have historically been under-represented in the global debate on sustainable development (Mora 2013; Stewart and Gill 2017). A significant opportunity therefore exists for geoscientists to increase their influence and enhance their impact.
The contribution of the various subdisciplines of geoscience to the UN SDGs is discussed in Gill (2017) and illustrated by the Geoscience for the Future poster published by the Geological Society of London (2020). These depictions highlight the contribution of engineering geology to SDG 1 (No poverty), SDG 2 (No hunger), SDG 7 (Affordable and clean energy), SDG 8 (Decent work and economic growth), SDG 9 (Industry, innovation and infrastructure), SDG 11 (Sustainable cities and communities) and SDG 13 (Climate action). Geosciences and the Sustainable Development Goals (Gill and Smith 2021) provides the most comprehensive review of geoscience in the context of the UN SDGs to date, with a focus on engagement through academia and education. While these publications capture the range and diversity of the contribution of geoscience to the UN SDGs, none of them examine in detail the role and skills of engineering geologists. Five years after the Brundtland Report, and more than two decades before the UN SDGs were launched, the role of engineering geology in solving environmental problems caused by human activities and in building resilience to natural hazards had already been recognized by the International Association for Engineering Geology and the Environment (IAEG) in their definition of engineering geology as
[T]he science devoted to the investigation, study and solution of the engineering and environmental problems which may arise as the result of the interaction between geology and the works and activities of man as well as to the prediction and of the development of measures for prevention or remediation of geological hazards
This definition also articulates that engineering geology embraces the application of geomorphology, hydrogeology, geomechanics and geochemical characterization (IAEG 1992).
Reflecting on the themes of the IAEG congress’ and main symposia over the past 20 years suggests the industry itself recognizes the importance of its role in addressing many of the issues covered by the UN SDGs, including the impacts of climate change, territory protection, population safety, landscape exploitation, sustainable urbanization, infrastructure development, material use, education and preservation of cultural heritage (IAEG Congress, 2002–2003, 2005–2006, 2011, 2013–2014, 2018). The 2006 IAEG Congress session on the future of engineering geology also recognized that engineering geologists need to improve how they communicate the value of their contribution to sustainable development (Baynes et al. 2009). Despite this broad recognition, there has been limited practical holistic guidance to enable practitioners and researchers specifically engaged in engineering geology to understand how they can, or already do, contribute to sustainable development in the context of the 17 UN SDGs. A recent search of publicly available literature, conducted by the authors of this paper using the WorldCat database (https://www.worldcat.org accessed in 2021), found only a single relevant publication (Cook 2019) containing the words ‘engineering geology’ and ‘sustainable development goals’ in the title, and a further nine relevant publications where ‘engineering geology’ and ‘sustainable development goals’ were identified as keywords (Brandolini et al. 2018a, 13b; Bohle 2019; Doyle et al. 2019; Fordyce and Campbell 2019; Hosseini et al. 2019; Kyaw et al. 2019; Osinubi et al. 2019; Reid et al. 2019).
This paper seeks to address a gap in the literature by providing engineering geologists with a clearer understanding of how they already contribute to the UN SDGs, as well as identifying opportunities to strengthen their contribution. It is envisaged that this paper will enable engineering geologists to understand the consequences of their work in terms of sustainable development, empower them to communicate confidently the value of their role and to exert their influence to drive positive outcomes on their projects.
Methodology for mapping engineering geological knowledge, skills and activities to the UN SDGs and targets
In order to understand fully the current contribution of engineering geologists to the UN SDGs, and where this could be enhanced, a mapping exercise was undertaken to review systematically all 169 SDG targets and related indicators against typical engineering geology knowledge, skills and activities. Similar exercises for other geoscience and engineering disciplines have been undertaken previously, but none specifically relating engineering geology to SDG targets; these include:
a more in-depth mapping of geophysical applications and practices to all 17 of the UN SDGs by Capello et al. (2021) using expert elicitation, which similarly does not make an assessment at target level; and
detailed mapping of construction-related activities and the UN SDGs, including individual targets and indicators, undertaken by Czerwinska (2017), Alawneh et al. (2019), Goubran (2019), The Economist Intelligence Unit (2019) and Gyadu-Asiedu et al. (2021). These assessments identify direct dependencies between the construction industry and some of the SDGs, in addition to indirect dependencies of all other SDGs. Goubran (2019), in particular, provides a rigorous methodology to assess holistically the interlinkages of all goals and targets.
The mapping exercise used the authors’ collective experience and judgement (covering multiple sectors, geographies and project types). This heuristic approach (Capello et al. 2021) was preferred over a systematic quantitative literature review (Pickering and Byrne 2014) because there are too few publications (11 in total) with ‘engineering geology’ and ‘sustainable development goals’ identified as keywords; and it was also considered important to capture the typical practice of engineering geologists working in industry, which is often not documented in the academic literature. As a consequence, the analysis will include some subjectivity and generalization: for example, the need to strengthen contributions may vary in different contexts (e.g. by country) and evolve over time; and only addresses whether we have identified a link to an SDG target, and not the relative strength of this link.
For the purpose of this mapping exercise, the discipline of engineering geology was restricted to the typical role and activities undertaken by engineering geologists within industry and academia. While this does, and always will, include some necessary overlap with other disciplines – in particular hydrogeology, geotechnical engineering, geo-environmental engineering, mining engineering, petroleum engineering and engineering geophysics – we have not considered the totality of the roles and activities undertaken within these disciplines.
The results of the analysis demonstrate that engineering geologists can contribute to all 17 of the UN SDGs. Engineering geology knowledge, skills and activities can be directly linked to 82 of the 169 targets (48%) and indirectly to a further 25 targets (15%). Of those that are directly dependent, 44 (26%) are of primary dependence and 38 (22%) are of secondary dependence (see Table 1 for dependence definitions). The results of the analysis are presented in Table 2, as well as in Figure 2a in terms of the number of targets and in Figure 2b in terms of the percentage of the total number of targets, and are discussed in further detail below. The full results of the mapping exercise are provided as part of the Supplementary material for this paper; summaries of mapped targets are also provided in Table 2.
Engineering geology makes the strongest overall (both direct and indirect) contribution to: SDG 7 (Affordable and clean energy), where it is linked to 100% of the targets; SDG 9 (Industry, innovation and infrastructure), where it is linked to 88% of the targets; SDG 12 (Responsible consumption and production), where it is linked to 82% of the targets; and SDG 11 (Sustainable cities and communities) and SDG 13 (Climate action), where it is linked to 80% of the targets for both goals.
Engineering geology makes the strongest direct (both primary and secondary) contributions to SDG 7 (Affordable and clean energy), SDG 13 (Climate action) and SDG 11 (Sustainable cities and communities), where it is directly linked to 80% of the targets for all three goals. It also makes a strong contribution to SDG 12 (Responsible consumption and production), where it is directly linked to 72% of the targets, as well as to SDG 6 (Clean water and sanitation) and SDG 9 (Industry, innovation and infrastructure), where it is also directly linked to 63% of the targets for both goals.
Engineering geology makes the strongest primary direct contributions to: SDG 7 (Affordable and clean energy), where it is directly linked to 80% of the targets; SDG 11 (Sustainable cities and communities), where it is directly linked to 70% of the targets; SDG 6 (Clean water and sanitation), where it is directly linked to 63% of the targets; and SDG 13 (Climate action), where it is directly linked to 60% of the targets.
Engineering geology makes the weakest overall contributions (direct and indirect) to: SDG 10 (Reduced inequalities), where it is linked to only 20% of the targets; SDG 14 (Life below water), where it is linked to 40% of targets; and SDG 17 (Partnerships for the goals), where it is linked to 47% of targets. No primary direct contribution was found between engineering geology and SDG 5 (Gender equality), SDG 10 (Reduced inequalities), SDG 16 (Peace, justice and strong institutions) and SDG 17 (Partnerships for the goals), although in all cases secondary direct contributions were identified.
The findings of the analysis identified opportunities for engineering geologists to strengthen their contribution to all 17 of the UN SDGs. Engineering geologists have the greatest opportunity to strengthen their contribution to: SDG 17 (Partnerships for the goals), where seven opportunity targets were identified; SDG 12 (Responsible consumption and production) and SDG 16 (Peace, justice and strong institutions), where six opportunity targets were identified for both cases; and SDG 7 (Affordable and clean energy), where five opportunity targets were identified.
The assessment highlights a number of key impact areas where engineering geologists already contribute to sustainable development. Three key impact areas have been derived from primary direct contributions: construction and infrastructure development; disaster risk reduction; and environmental protection and delivery of nature-based solutions/environmentally sensitive design. Two further key impact areas have been derived from secondary direct contributions: building an equitable and effective community; and collaboration and strong partnerships (including engaging in policy-level processes). A summary of how engineering geologists already contribute to these key impact areas is provided below, as well as a discussion on how they can enhance their impact by strengthening their contributions.
Figure 3 summarizes the broad range of engineering geological activities identified in the assessment derived from the three primary impact areas, noting that many activities contribute to more than one focus area. It expands upon the Geoscience for the Future poster published by the Geological Society of London in 2020, identifying the UN SDGs that relate to each activity.
The role of engineering geology in sustainable construction and infrastructure development
The purpose of infrastructure is to provide fundamental societal needs such as transportation, energy supply, water and sanitation, waste management, food supply, shelter, education, and healthcare etc. The broader outcomes infrastructure systems facilitate go beyond these basic functions, meaning that infrastructure development also plays a key role in addressing many of the socio-economic and environmental challenges covered by the SDGs (United Nations 2015; The Economist Intelligence Unit 2019; Institution of Civil Engineers 2020). For example, improved water and sanitation facilities (SDG 6) at schools will allow girls to stay in education when they are menstruating, supporting gender equality (SDG 5). However, current investment in infrastructure globally is insufficient to maintain existing service levels in line with projected social and economic growth (Dobbs et al. 2013; Woetzel et al. 2016)
Thacker et al. (2018) identified that infrastructure systems contribute to between 72 and 81% of the SDG targets across all 17 goals. For these targets related to infrastructure development, the mapping exercise presented in this paper identified primary direct dependencies for 80 (47%) targets, as well as secondary direct dependencies for 25 (15%) targets and indirect dependencies for 24 (14%) targets, as related to engineering geology knowledge, skills and activities; key examples of these contributions include:
developing ground models, characterizing geological materials, assessing geohazard risk, and informing the planning, efficient design, construction, operation and maintenance of sustainable and resilient infrastructure, including waste disposal, energy, mining, water and sanitation, transportation and cities, as illustrated in Figure 3 (targets 1.4, 2.1, 2.3, 2.5, 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, 3.6, 4.1, 6.1, 6.2, 6.3, 6.4, 7.1, 7.2, 8.1, 8.2, 8.9, 8.10, 9.1, 9.2, 9.4, 9.a, 9.c, 11.1, 11.2, 11.3, 12.3, 16.1 and 17.8);
enhancing construction productivity by substantially reducing cost and time overruns due to unforeseen ground conditions (targets 8.1, 8.2, 8.4, 9.1, 9.4 and 11.3); and
assessing the re-use opportunities of excavation spoil, and developing material treatment and remediation strategies that minimize the import of materials and construction waste (targets 2.2, 2.3, 12.1, 12.2, 12.5 and 14.1).
The current under-investment in infrastructure globally, known as the ‘infrastructure gap’, threatens to undermine projected social and economic growth. Productivity must be improved within the construction sector to help combat this (Dobbs et al. 2013). Ground failure and unforeseen ground conditions are estimated to be, on average, responsible for significant delays in at least 20% of construction programmes and cost overruns of at least 10% (Littlejohn et al. 1994; Gould 1995; Fookes 1997; Brandl 2004; Chapman and Marcetteau 2004; The Economist 2005; van Staveren 2006; Chapman 2012). As highlighted by Baynes et al. (2020), a good engineering geological model is powerful in managing ground risk. Understanding and managing the variability of the ground, including any contamination, is critical for the development of a design that can be constructed safely yet efficiently, minimizing the use of materials, creation of waste and environmental impacts of construction, including carbon emissions and the spread of soil and groundwater contamination. As such, engineering geology has a key role in improving productivity within construction. Engineering geologists need to do more to communicate the value that they bring to the planning, design and construction processes in characterizing ground risks and anticipating adverse ground conditions.
Figure 4 illustrates the life cycle of an infrastructure project, highlighting when the typical contributions of engineering geologists occur at each project stage. As highlighted by Pantelidou et al. (2012), the biggest opportunities to apply sustainable solutions during project delivery are in the earlier planning stages, diminishing as planning and design progresses, and becoming quite limited during construction. Conversely, the cost of affecting design changes increases over time. Mansell et al. (2019a, b) consider the broader view of the infrastructure development life cycle and how making better choices about which project to execute (i.e. ‘doing the right projects’), with a focus on project outcomes, is a more effective way to achieve greater impact than through project delivery (i.e. ‘doing projects right’) (Fig. 5). The typical contribution of engineering geologists is during project delivery in the latter stages of project planning and the early stages of design. At the time of their involvement, which project to execute and the strategic definition of the project has already been established. This provides an opportunity to broaden their engagement with these earlier life-cycle stages and to influence project definition and strategic decision-making, with a focus on maximizing sustainable outcomes.
While the greatest impact can be achieved in these early stages, engineering geological modelling at all stages of the project life cycle can also be improved by greater investment in high-quality ground investigation and wider sharing of existing geological and geotechnical data through national and regional databases (e.g. BRO in The Netherlands: von der Tann et al. 2018; and Dig to Share in the UK: I3P 2021; (COST) Action (SUB-URBAN: TU1206) in the EU: Fordyce and Campbell 2019). There is also an opportunity for engineering geologists to be engaged more during construction operations with, for example, construction managers and resident engineers to observe and advise on encountered ground conditions; developing live geological ground models that are updated whenever new information and data become available, and that are properly integrated with other construction information, such as building information modelling (BIM) and digital twin (e.g. Kessler et al. 2015; Terrington et al. 2019; Turner et al. 2021).
The role of engineering geology in disaster risk reduction
It is widely recognized that disaster risk reduction is a key element of sustainable development (UNDP 2013). Disasters threaten development progress, and disproportionately affect the poor and marginalized (Pelling et al. 2004) Addressing socio-economic sustainable development challenges can increase individual, community, institutional and infrastructural resilience through a reduction in exposure and/or vulnerability to hazards (UNDP 2004). As such, resilience to natural hazards is embedded into the UN SDGs.
A UN analysis identified 25 targets, across 10 of the UN SDGs, that relate to disaster risk reduction (UNDRR 2015b). For those targets related to disaster risk reduction, the mapping exercise presented in this paper identified primary direct dependencies for 20 (12%) targets, as well as secondary direct dependencies for three (2%) targets, as related to engineering geology knowledge, skills and activities. Key examples of these contributions include:
carrying out natural hazard assessments to determine the risk to communities and infrastructure, informing planning, design, construction, asset management and disaster recovery strategies, such as landslides and rockfalls, as illustrated in Figure 3 (targets 1.5, 3.d, 11.2, 11.5, 11.b, 13.1, 13.2 and 16.1);
assessing the effects of climate change on geohazards, and contributing to strategies that enable effective planning and design for future climate scenarios such as sea-level rise and increased coastal erosion, as illustrated in Figure 3 (targets 1.5, 13.2 and 13.b); and
identifying hazardous chemicals in water and soil, and harmful levels of geogenic materials (e.g. radon gas), and providing advice on reducing water and soil pollution and contamination risks through remediation to enable rehabilitation and reuse of contaminated sites, as illustrated in Figure 3 (targets 3.4, 3.9, 6.1 and 6.3).
In addition to the 25 targets identified by UNDRR (2015b), progress towards other targets can help to strengthen scientific capacity and institutional capability in disaster risk reduction. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–30 (UNDRR 2015a) sets out four ‘Priorities for action’. ‘Priority 1: understanding disaster risk’ includes understanding hazard characteristics and the environment for risk assessment, prevention, mitigation, preparedness and response. There is an opportunity for further research and innovation in relation to the impacts of climate change on geohazard: for example, modelling the effect of projected increase in rainfall intensity on landslide risk; and the impact of projected sea-level rise on coastal erosion. The impacts of climate change are not yet being routinely considered during planning, design and geohazard risk assessment. More can also be done in terms of sharing knowledge and understanding of geohazard risk assessment globally, working with social scientists to understand local context, upskilling local scientists and partnering with local institutions in vulnerable communities to improve their resilience to geohazards.
Given the complex challenges posed by disasters, and the need for a holistic approach to disaster risk reduction and management, Gill et al. (2021) recommend shifting from characterizing multiple single hazards to a multi-hazard approach. This considers the interrelationships between hazards and their cascading, consecutive or concurrent impacts on natural, built and social systems. An integrated approach is key to ensuring actions taken to reduce vulnerability to one hazard do not inadvertently increase vulnerability to others. In this context, strengthening the contribution of engineering geologists to deliver the UN SDGs means breaking down professional and disciplinary silos, and facilitating closer engagement with other natural hazard scientists (e.g. hydrologists, meteorologists and public health professionals) and social scientists. Approaches to support this include the setting up cross-agency hazard partnerships (e.g. the UK's Natural Hazards Partnership), and ensuring that the structure of scientific unions allows for cross-disciplinary conversations and research development (e.g. the European Geosciences Union have a ’multi-hazard’ subdivision).
The role of engineering geology in environmental protection
Environmental protection and enhancement are integrated within all 17 UN SDGs, reflecting the extent to which social and economic development is dependent on, as well as having potential to cause harm to, the environment. Climate change associated with increasing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations is considered the single biggest threat to social and economic development, and the environment. Implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is essential in achieving the UN SDGs. The overall aim of the Paris Agreement is to limit global warming to no more than 1.5°C by transitioning to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The urgent need for rapid, large-scale and sustained reduction in emissions is highlighted by the IPPC's Climate Change 2021 Report (IPCC 2021). Planning, design and construction of the built environment must consider the competing needs of social development and environmental protection, including carbon emissions and sequestration.
The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) identified 85 environment-related SDG targets (UNEP 2019). For those targets related to environmental protection, the mapping exercise presented in this paper identified primary direct dependencies for 34 (20%) targets, as well as secondary direct dependencies for 13 (8%) targets and indirect dependencies for eight (5%) targets, as related to engineering geology knowledge, skills and activities. Key examples of these contributions include:
supporting the feasibility, planning, design, construction, operation and maintenance of infrastructure for waste treatment and disposal, carbon capture and sequestration, and clean energy generation, transmission and storage such as geothermal, wind, hydropower, energy storage, as illustrated in Figure 3 (targets 1.5, 6.1, 6.2, 6.4, 7.1, 7.2, 7.3, 9.4 and 11.5);
minimizing the surface impact of the built environment through subsurface characterization, and supporting the development of foundations, engineered slopes and subsurface infrastructure, as illustrated in Figure 3 (targets 9.1, 11.2 and 11.3);
maximizing the efficient use of natural resources, minimizing waste and embodied carbon in construction through efficient design by characterizing material properties, and identifying and implementing material re-use and improvement strategies, as illustrated in Figure 3 (targets 8.4, 12.1, 12.2 and 12.5);
working with hydrogeologists and ecologists to safeguard biotic and abiotic systems by identifying contamination sources, pathways and receptors, and developing, implementing and monitoring remediation strategies for protecting or enhancing air, soil and water quality (geodiversity and geocapital), as illustrated in Figure 3 (targets 2.4, 3.9, 6.1, 6.6, 8.4, 11.4, 12.2, 12.4, 12.5 and 15.9); and
working with hydrogeologists, hydrologists, drainage engineers, urban designers and ecologists to deliver nature-based, nature-considerate and regenerative engineering solutions, such as quarry and mine rehabilitation and re-use, as identified in Figure 3, green slopes, and sustainable urban drainage systems (SuDS) (targets 6.4, 6.6, 14.2 and 15.9).
The day-to-day activities of engineering geologists and the operation of the organizations that they work for are a source of carbon emissions and waste. Engineering geologists should pursue the adoption of new technologies and other options for reducing emissions, waste and other pollution within their operations. However, engineering organizations can have an even greater influence on environmental protection through the projects that they work on by considering whole of life carbon, circularity and waste minimization during design. Engineering geologists already contribute to the reduction of embodied carbon by helping designers to understand the ground but can strengthen their contribution by working with engineers and materials experts to drive the use of less carbon-intensive materials in construction: for example, alternatives to cement and lime for earthworks treatment (e.g. microbial-induced calcite precipitation application (MICP): Osinubi et al. 2019). An even greater impact can be achieved by advocating for schemes that minimize user and operational carbon, which typically have greater significance in terms of whole of life carbon than embodied carbon. For example, engineering geologists would have an important role to play in determining the feasibility of a water supply tunnel through mountainous terrain to optimize gravitational feed and avoid significant operational carbon associated with pumping up and over a mountain. In addition to reducing carbon as part of the planning and design process, they can also contribute to the development and inclusion of initiatives to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, such as enhanced mineral weathering within their projects.
Further to the significant contribution that engineering geologists make to support the clean energy transition, including directly to the development of sustainable shallow subsurface heat-recovery schemes (Brabham et al. 2019; Patton et al. 2020; Monaghan et al. 2021), wider upskilling of the workforce will be required within specialist areas such as offshore environments to support an increasing volume of offshore wind-farm projects globally. A greater knowledge of deep geology, increased application of rock mechanics and better understanding of hydromechanical–chemical coupling is also needed to support the development of new underground carbon capture and storage (CCS), energy storage, and radioactive-waste-disposal technologies (Evans et al. 2009). Engineering geology will also have an important role to play in the development of mining infrastructure for the extraction of rare earth elements and other minerals that are critical for the transition to renewable energy and the electrification of transport systems, as illustrated in Figure 3.
Natural capital is defined as the world's stocks of natural assets from which humans derive a wide range of services (often called ecosystem services) that make human life possible. This includes rocks, soil, air, water and all living things. Geodiversity, which refers to the variation in the Earth's abiotic processes and features, has a strong influence on biodiversity (Fox et al. 2020). Engineering geologists can influence environmental planning by promoting the role of geodiversity alongside biodiversity in providing ecosystem services (Schrodt et al. 2019). New initiatives for considering net biodiversity gain during the planning process, such as those being integrated into development projects in the UK (DEFRA 2019), present an opportunity for engineering geologists to work with ecologists to integrate geocapital in natural capital accounting frameworks and to contribute to strategies to achieve a net gain in natural capital through the project life cycle (Gordon and Barron 2013; Van Ree and Beukering 2016; Fox et al. 2020).
The role of engineering geology in building an equitable and effective community
While the UN SDGs are relevant to all contexts, people and segments of society, they have a focus on ‘leaving no one behind’. Agenda 2030 (United Nations 2015) highlights the specific challenges faced by the world's least developed countries, landlocked developing countries and small island developing states (SIDS), as well as countries where there is, or has recently been, armed conflict. A repeated theme of the UN SDGs is the need to provide extra support to these regions, which include some of the world's most vulnerable communities, to ensure that they have an equitable share in a sustainable and prosperous future. The principle of ‘leaving no one behind’ goes further than this to include tackling inequalities and barriers to inclusion of every type, and at every scale and level.
For those targets related to building an equitable and effective community, the mapping exercise presented in this paper identified primary direct dependencies for 10 (6%) targets, as well as secondary direct dependencies for 21 (12%) targets and indirect dependencies for nine (5%) targets, as related to engineering geology knowledge, skills and activities. Key examples of these contributions include:
increased access to engineering geology by under-represented groups in all national contexts including regions identified in Agenda 2030 as needing extra support; this includes providing sponsorship or scholarships to increase access to postgraduate training in contexts where resources are limited, ensuring a strengthened supply of engineering geologists (targets 1.2, 4.4, 4.5, 4.7, 4.b, 10.6, 13.3, 13.b and 17.9);
tackling inequalities and abuses in the sector, and developing organizational policies and processes to tackle discrimination against women and minority groups (targets 5.1, 5.2, 5.4, 5.5, 10.3, 16.2 and 16.5); and
strengthening institutions, and ensuring inclusive and transparent decision-making; ensuring representation and voices of engineering geologists from developing countries in international organizations, such as scientific unions and professional societies (targets 5.5 10.6, 16.5, 16.6, 16.7, 16.8, 17.14 and 17.16).
How engineering geology activities are conducted, and institutions operate, can directly affect the extent to which projects achieve a long-lasting, positive impact. Institutions with inclusive decision-making can help to tackle inequalities, and ensure safe and secure work environments. Increasing access to engineering geology training for marginalized groups can help to build organizations with the collective intellect, creativity and range of perspectives required to innovate and address pressing scientific and societal challenges.
To help build a more equitable engineering geology community, with effective and transparent institutions, geoethics should be embedded into the training of engineering geologists. Geoethics is an emerging field, exploring the values that underpin appropriate behaviours and practices, and the social role and responsibility of geoscientists in conducting their activities (Di Capua and Peppoloni 2019; Di Capua et al. 2021). By including geoethics in their training, it equips engineering geologists with the skills and tools they need to examine critically how they work, and whether this will support or hinder efforts to tackle inequalities. Training in geoethics should be supplemented by existing institutional and organizational ethical frameworks: for example, the Geological Society of London's Code of Conduct.
Another action is to ensure a greater emphasis on commitment to diversity, equality and inclusion in the assessment criteria for chartership and other professional certifications, while also creating or supporting forums for the sharing of good practices between institutions, sectors and nations. As professionals, engineering geologists should take personal and collective responsibility for driving equity within their profession and beyond.
The role of engineering geology in delivering sustainable development through collaborative and strong partnerships
It is widely recognized that success in achieving the UN SDGs will be underpinned by the principles of SDG 17 (Partnerships for the goals). Collaborations to address sustainability challenges need to bring together those in academia, industry, the public sector and civil society organizations. Each brings different perspectives and resources to achieve a greater development impact than any individual sector could achieve alone (Stibbe and Prescott 2016). For example, by working with industry, academics can ensure research questions are aligned to societal needs. Industry can also support the translation of knowledge and innovation into practice, establishing clear impact pathways for academic work. In return, working with academia brings access to data, knowledge and expertise that can inform industry-relevant tools and approaches. For example, the UK Natural Environment Research Council's Environmental Risks to Infrastructure Innovation Programme (ERIIP) brought together academia and the infrastructure sector to facilitate access to knowledge of environmental risks (NERC 2021).
For those targets related to collaborative and strong partnerships, the mapping exercise presented in this paper identified primary direct dependencies for eight (5%) targets, as well as secondary direct dependencies for 16 (9%) targets and indirect dependencies for five (3%) targets, as related to engineering geology knowledge, skills and activities. Key examples of these contributions include:
contributing to international research and multi-sector partnerships to co-develop solutions, and to share knowledge, data and technology for waste treatment, waste disposal, generating and storing clean energy, nature-based solutions, and sustainable consumption (targets 6.a, 7.3, 7.a, 9.5, 9.a, 12a, 13.3, 13.b, 14.2, 14a, 17.6, 17.7, 17.16 and 17.17);
engagement in local, national, regional and global policy processes to ensure understanding of the subsurface (risks and opportunities) is embedded into planning policies and strategies – supporting their alignment with parallel policies on environmental protection, resource use and management, and disaster and emergency risk reduction and management (targets 1.b, 10.3, 12.6, 12.7, 12.8, 16.1, 16.6, 16.7, 16.8, 16.10, 16b and 17.7); and
building capacity and facilitating knowledge and technology transfer in engineering geology, through global partnerships, and thus supporting developing countries to address SDGs (targets 3.d, 6.b, 9.5, 9.b, 10.6 11.c, 12.a, 13.b, 17.7, 17.9 and 17.16).
As illustrated in Figure 4, engineering geologists engaged in infrastructure (and other) projects regularly collaborate with engineers, architects, urban designers, transport planners, ecologists, heritage specialists, social scientists, environmental planners, sustainability consultants and economists over the project life cycle. They also work with stakeholders across multiple sectors, including transport infrastructure, buildings, energy, mining, waste, water, health and education, both within the developing and the developed world context, and in public and privately owned organizations, as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs). To maximize their impact, engineering geologists should engage with stakeholders higher up the value chain that have the most influence over project definition and strategic decision-making, such as clients, planners, policy-makers and business leaders. They should also explore new opportunities to collaborate or partner with academia, NGOs, private firms, start-ups, academic institutions or innovation labs. International multi-stakeholder partnerships must support the levelling up of developing countries and underprivileged communities through dissemination of knowledge, expertise and technology, and via effective capacity building.
Engagement of engineering geologists in policy processes can both strengthen understanding of development priorities and increase opportunities to inform policy development and implementation to improve projects. Participation in international (including global) policy mechanisms can encourage dialogue on the importance of the subsurface and interactions between the natural and built environments and society, shaping outputs that feed through into the policies, strategies and actions taken by regional bodies, and national and local governments. Participation in national-level policy processes can help to shape the development and implementation of policy. Examples of opportunities to engage with policy-level initiatives at these different scales include the Global Technology Facilitation Mechanism (global) and the UK Engineering in Policy Network (national), which both facilitate collaboration and partnerships through the sharing of information, experiences, best practices and policy advice. They provide opportunities for engineering geologists (and other geoscientists) to contribute to policy processes through science-for-development forums, joining expert groups and responding to calls-for-evidence to inform flagship reports (such as the quadrennial Global Sustainable Development Report) (InterAcademy Partnership 2019).
Organizations with members or followers from the engineering geology community are active in this space. For example, the UK-based NGO Geology for Global Development participate in UN-level forums and respond to calls for evidence. In 2021, they secured observer status to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and embedded the importance of geodiversity in a UN Scientific and Technological Community Major Group position paper prepared for the 2021 UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (STC MG 2021). The Geological Society of London have an active policy programme, responding to consultations and inquiries in the UK, with opportunities for Fellows to inform these responses.
Work at the science–policy interface involves communicating technical information to non-technical stakeholders, and knowledge of policy-making processes that is often missing from the training of engineering geologists. Delivering the UN SDGs will require increased engagement of engineering geologists, and their professional societies, in policy-level initiatives. This can be supported by building the collaborations described at the start of this section, and embedding governance and an understanding of policy-making processes into the training of engineering geologists.
This paper provides a clear understanding of the role that engineering geology has in delivering UN SDGs. A detailed mapping exercise has been undertaken to review the dependency of all 169 SDG targets on engineering geology knowledge, skills and activities. Examples from the literature and project case studies were used to demonstrate the direct and indirect contribution of engineering geologists to all 17 of the UN SDGs, drawing on experience gained across a range of different geographies, organizations and development contexts. The aim of this approach was to make this exercise globally relevant and in line with the UN SDGs. While this assessment is systematic and detailed, it is by no means considered exhaustive.
As illustrated by Figure 3, engineering geologists clearly have an important role to play in achieving sustainable development globally, primarily through their role in infrastructure development, building resilience and disaster risk reduction, and environmental protection, but also, indirectly, by building equitable and effective communities, and through collaborative and strong partnerships.
Although the study has identified many ways in which engineering geologists are already contributing to the delivery of the UN SDGs, a number of opportunities to strengthen their contribution have also been identified, these include: extending their influence across the project life cycle, and to policy-making; greater consideration of options for decarbonization, the impacts of climate change, and the value of geocapital and geodiversity; training in geoethics, and a greater emphasis on diversity, inclusion and equity within the profession; and increased collaboration and knowledge sharing globally through cross- and multi-disciplinary partnerships, and between industry and academia.
It is hoped that by investigating and articulating the different ways in which engineering geologists contribute to each of the UN SDGs and targets, this paper will enable and empower engineering geologists globally to better communicate the value of their contribution to society, the environment and the economy, and to identify opportunities to increase that impact. Engineering geologists must seek to understand the consequences of their work in terms of sustainable development, and, in so doing, act responsibly and exert their influence to drive positive outcomes in everything that they do.
This research represents a global effort with insight and perspective from geologists and geoscientists from across Arup and the British Geological Survey. In addition, specific thanks go to Craig Woodward (BGS) for the final drafting of Figure 3, and Stephanie Bricker (BGS), Jonathan Smith (QJEGH reviewer), Hayley Thomas (QJEGH reviewer) and Philip Vardon (QJEGH reviewer) for providing comments and suggestions to improve this paper. This paper is published by permission of Arup and of the Executive Director of the British Geological Survey (UKRI).
RHL: conceptualization (lead), data curation (lead), formal analysis (lead), funding acquisition (lead), investigation (lead), methodology (lead), project administration (lead), writing – original draft (lead), writing – review & editing (lead); JH: conceptualization (equal), data curation (equal), formal analysis (equal), funding acquisition (equal), investigation (equal), methodology (equal), project administration (equal), resources (equal), writing – original draft (equal), writing – review & editing (equal); JCG: conceptualization (equal), data curation (equal), formal analysis (equal), funding acquisition (equal), investigation (equal), methodology (equal), writing – original draft (equal), writing – review & editing (equal); MD: conceptualization (equal), data curation (equal), formal analysis (equal), funding acquisition (equal), investigation (equal), methodology (equal), writing – original draft (equal), writing – review & editing (equal); CL: conceptualization (equal), data curation (equal), formal analysis (equal), funding acquisition (equal), investigation (equal), methodology (equal), writing – review & editing (equal); PI: conceptualization (supporting).
This research was supported by research funding from Arup's ‘Invest in Arup’ Programme and the British Geological Survey's NC-ODA grant NE/R000069/1 entitled ‘Geoscience for Sustainable Futures’.
The authors declare that they have no known competing financial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this paper.
All data generated or analysed during this study are included in this published article (and its supplementary information files).
This paper is now available under an Open Access license.
Scientific editing by Jonathan Smith; Matthijs Bonte