Dec. 3, 2018


Curbing Climate Change and Sustainably Supplying Food, Water, and Energy Among Top Challenges Environmental Engineering Can Help Address, New Report Says

WASHINGTON – Over the next several decades as the global population grows, society will be faced with pressing challenges such as providing reliable supplies of food and water, diminishing climate change and adapting to its impacts, and building healthy, resilient cities.  These challenges call for new and expanded roles for environmental engineers, says a new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.  To address the challenges, the report recommends that the environmental engineering field evolve its education, research, and practice to advance practical, impactful solutions for society’s multifaceted, vexing problems.

Environmental engineers design systems and solutions where humans and the environment intersect.  The report notes that environmental engineers were instrumental in mitigating cholera and other once-prevalent waterborne diseases and in pulling the U.S. and other countries out of the depths of environmental crises such as urban smog and the massive environmental disaster at Love Canal.  In early years, work focused on providing clean water and treating wastewater, drawing upon the field’s roots in sanitation system design and public health protection.  More recently, the field has expanded to address air pollution, hazardous waste, contaminated soil, and emerging contaminants and has involved activities such as green manufacturing and sustainable urban design. 

However, the report points out, pollution and waterborne disease persist around the globe, and billions of people suffer from inadequate access to clean water, food, sanitation, and energy.  Meanwhile, human pressures on the environment are accelerating.  By 2050, the world’s population is anticipated to increase by 2.6 billion people, and climate change and increasing urbanization are putting new pressures on the environment and existing infrastructure.   

The five grand challenges identified in the report that environmental engineers are uniquely poised to help advance are –

“These challenges provide the impetus for evolving environmental engineering education, research, and practice toward broader contributions and greater impact,” said Domenico Grasso, chair of the committee that wrote the report and chancellor at the University of Michigan—Dearborn.  “Implementing a new model for the field will require innovations in the educational curriculum and creative approaches to foster interdisciplinary research on complex social and environmental problems.” 

In addition to the need for effective solutions to address these environmental challenges, the report also draws attention to the need for recognizing that implementing these solutions is in the best interest of our society.  This would mean creating a community that is well-informed about how the environment affects human well-being and prosperity.  It is also important that experts and stakeholders act in partnership to identify problems and consider alternative solutions.  These elements provide a foundation for identifying and implementing policy, management, and regulatory approaches to advance results consistent with the priorities, to which environmental engineers can contribute, the committee said.

In order to evolve to best serve communities and address complex global challenges, the committee recommended adopting the following new strategies for environmental engineering education, research, and practice.

The report emphasizes that this work must be carried out with a keen awareness of the needs of the people who have been historically excluded from environmental decision-making, such as those who are socio-economically disadvantaged, members of underrepresented groups, or otherwise marginalized.

This report was inspired in part by the National Academy of Engineering’s (NAE) Grand Challenges for Engineering announced in 2008. The NAE effort is aimed at inspiring young engineers across the globe to address the biggest challenges facing humanity in the 21st century.

The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the Delta Stewardship Council.  The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine.  The National Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.  For more information, visit  A committee roster follows.

Riya Anandwala, Media Relations Officer
Andrew Robinson, Media Assistant
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Copies of Environmental Engineering for the 21st Century: Addressing Grand Challenges are available from the National Academies Press at or by calling 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242.  Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


Division on Earth and Life Studies
Water Science and Technology Board

Committee on Grand Challenges and Opportunities in Environmental Engineering for the 21st Century

Domenico Grasso (chair)
University of Michigan

Craig H. Benson1
School of Engineering, and
Hamilton Endowed Chair in Engineering
Department of Engineering Systems and Environment
University of Virginia

Amanda Carrico
Associate Director and Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies
University of Colorado

Kartik Chandran
Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering
Henry Krumb School of Mines
Columbia University
New York City

G. Wayne Clough
Secretary Emeritus
Smithsonian Institution; and
President Emeritus
Georgia Institute of Technology

John C. Crittenden1
Hightower Chair and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Environmental Technologies
School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and
Director of the Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems
Georgia Institute of Technology

Daniel S. Greenbaum
President and Chief Executive Officer
Health Effects Institute

Steven P. Hamburg
Chief Scientist
Environmental Defense Fund

Thomas C. Harmon
Professor and Chair
Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering
School of Engineering
University of California

James M. Hughes2
Professor of Medicine and Public Health
School of Medicine and Rollins School of Public Health
Emory University

Kimberly L. Jones
Professor and Chair
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Howard University
Washington, D.C.

Linsey C. Marr
Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Robert Perciasepe
Center for Climate and Energy Solutions
Arlington, Va.

Stephen Polasky3
Regents Professor
Department of Applied Economics, and
Fesler-Lampert Professor of Ecological and Environmental Economics
Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior
College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences
University of Minnesota
St. Paul

Maxine L. Savitz1
General Manager for Technology Partnerships (retired)
Honeywell Inc.
Morris Plains, N.J.

Norman R. Scott1
Professor Emeritus
Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
College of Engineering
Cornell University
Ithaca, N.Y

R. Rhodes Trussell1
Founder and Chairman
Trussell Technologies, Inc.
Pasadena, Calif.

Julie B. Zimmerman
Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering
School of Engineering and Applied Science
Yale University
New Haven, Colo.


Stephanie E. Johnson
Staff Officer

1Member, National Academy of Engineering
2Member, National Academy of Medicine
3Member, National Academy of Sciences