“Space-ship Earth is hurtling through the void. Its passengers are anxious and fractious, and their life support system is vulnerable to disruption and breakdowns. And there is too little planning, too little horizon-scanning. Our Earth has existed for 45 million centuries, but this century is special: it’s the first when one species, ours, has the planet’s future in its hands.” — Professor Lord Rees OM FRS HonFREng HonFMedSci, Astronomer Royal.

In a keynote address on Wednesday 18 September at the 2019 Global Grand Challenges Summit in London, Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, called for international collaboration to address the future challenges awaiting our population of 10 billion in 2050. An international audience of 900 of the next generation’s engineers, researchers, innovators, entrepreneurs, and policymakers attended the summit at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, with a further six satellite events streamed internationally.

Organised by the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering, Engineering in an unpredictable world marked the start of a second series of global summits jointly hosted by the UK, US and Chinese academies of engineering. During his address, Lord Rees called for attendees, as well as people watching the summit around the world, to address the 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering, and the issues set out in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Martin Rees is a leading astrophysicist and cosmologist, and the UK's Astronomer Royal. He is based at Cambridge University where he is a Fellow (and Former Master) of Trinity College. He was appointed to the House of Lords in 2005 and served as President of the Royal Society from 2005 to 2010. He was one of the first scientists to propose that quasars are powered by massive black holes, and that objects appearing to move faster than light can actually be explained as optical illusions. His latest book, On the future: prospects for humanity, was published in 2018.

“There are two things that we can predict even with a cloudy crystal ball: the world in 2050 will be more crowded, and it will be warmer”, said Lord Rees. “Coping with potential shortage of food, water, resources, and transitioning to low carbon energy, can’t be achieved by each nation separately. We need to think globally, we need to think rationally, we need to think long-term—empowered by twenty-first-century technology but guided by values that science alone can’t provide.”

On new technologies, he said: “We should be evangelists for new technology, not luddites – without it the world can’t provide food, and sustainable energy, for an expanding .and more demanding population. But we need wisely-directed technology. Indeed, many of are anxious that it’s advancing so fast that we may not properly cope with it. – and that we’ll have a bumpy ride through this century. The smartphone, the web and their ancillaries – ubiquitous today – would have seemed like magic even just 25 years ago. So, looking several decades ahead we must keep our minds open, or at least ajar, to transformative advances that may now seem like science fiction.”

On climate change, he said: “Even those who agree that there’s a significant risk of climate catastrophe a century hence, will differ in how urgently they advocate action today. Their assessment will depend on expectations of future growth, and optimism about technological fixes.

“Implementing the Climate Change Act in the UK will cut global emissions by less than 2 percent. But we produce around 10 percent of the world’s best scientific research. Through leading on innovation we can aspire to make far more than 2 percent difference – and of course to our economic benefit.

“It would be hard to think of a more inspiring challenge for young engineers than devising clean and economical energy systems for the world.”

On clean energy sources, Lord Rees said: “There’s one ‘win-win’ roadmap to a low-carbon future. Nations should accelerate research and development into all forms of low-carbon energy generation, as well as into other technologies where parallel progress is crucial, especially storage and smart grids.

“And despite ambivalence about nuclear energy, it’s surely worthwhile to invest into a variety of ‘Fourth Generation’ concepts, which could prove to be more flexible in size, and safer. The potential pay-off from fusion is so great that it is surely worth continuing experiments and prototypes.”

For more information on Engineering in an unpredictable world, please visit www.ggcs2019.com.

Video: watch Lord Rees' speech

Notes to editors

1. Engineering in an unpredictable world – the Global Grand Challenges Summit 2019

This has been made possible by the generous support of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Accenture Strategy and Lockheed Martin.

2. Royal Academy of Engineering

We bring together the most successful and talented engineers from across the profession – our Fellows – to advance and promote excellence in engineering for the benefit of society.

We have three strategic priorities: make the UK the leading nation for engineering innovation and businesses, address the engineering skills crisis, and position engineering at the heart of society. We are a national academy with a global outlook.


3. US National Academy of Engineering

The mission of the NAE is to advance the well-being of the nation by promoting a vibrant engineering profession and by marshalling the expertise and insights of eminent engineers to provide independent advice to the federal government on matters involving engineering and technology. The NAE is part of the National Academies of Sciences, an independent, nonprofit organization chartered by Congress to provide objective analysis and advice to the nation on matters of science, technology, and health.


4. Chinese Academy of Engineering

The Chinese Academy of Engineering is a national and independent organization composed of elected members with the highest honour in the community of engineering and technological sciences of the nation. By initiating and conducting strategic studies and providing consultancy for decision-making for the nation’s key issues of engineering and technology, the Academy devotes itself to promoting the progress of engineering and technological sciences.


For more information please contact the Royal Academy of Engineering:

Jane Sutton

Ryan Gibson

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