Michael Li, an Environmentally Sustainable Development (ESD) engineer at AECOM, was recently named by collaborative sustainability community 2degrees as one of 25 young professionals under 25 transforming the world of sustainable business.

Li has long had a strong interest in the environment and resource efficiency, with Western Australia’s long, hot summers delivering early lessons on the importance of conserving energy and water.

Architecture & Design spoke to him about prioritising short-term advantages over long-term benefits when it comes to sustainability, how education can be used for positive change and where he wants to be in 10 years time.

Where does your inspiration and passion for sustainability come from?

I grew up in Perth, WA, where experiencing the long, dry summers taught me some useful lessons in water conservation and keeping cool without air conditioning. I spent a lot of family holidays camping in the bush or at the beach, which really sparked my interest in sustainability and how we shape the environment around us.

What do you think is the biggest barrier to sustainability at the moment?

In some ways it's almost human nature to prioritise short-term advantages over long-term benefits that we may never see. This applies to many decisions, ranging from political policies and large capital investments to turning on the heater when maybe we don't need it. One of the major challenges for sustainability is that today's generation may have to make some perceived sacrifices for the benefit of future generations.

How can it be overcome?

People's attitudes need to change so that longer-term benefits are given as much consideration as short-term gains. Effective communication and education is important, possibly with appealing to people's emotions.

How far do you think Australia has come in the past five years in terms of sustainable practices?

Within the buildings industry in Australia, there has been a significant shift in focus from 'exemplar' sustainable projects towards raising the standard of 'business-as-usual' developments. This is reflected in changes to industry standards such as the National Construction Code and the Green Star rating system, and represents a positive step towards a more sustainable built environment.

You've said "When people are empowered to change their behaviour and make a difference, it goes a long way to reducing society’s environmental impacts". How can people be empowered to make a difference? Is this already happening?

I believe that education and sustainability can work hand-in-hand to create positive change. If our society is provided with the knowledge and belief to mitigate our environmental impacts, then this would enable a more effective development of solutions to the climate change issue. Through my career I hope to empower people in all walks of life to implement changes in their own lives and make their own small contribution to climate change mitigation.

What is the most exciting change with sustainability that you see happening now?

It's easy to sell sustainability when there are clear financial benefits. Innovative funding and financial mechanisms such as environmental upgrade agreements (EUAs) are making it easier for organisations to invest in sustainability, particularly in the built environment.

Where would you like to be in your career in 10 years’ time?

I hope to be managing projects that will assimilate sustainable principles into the business-as-usual standards for Australian society. I will focus not only on pushing the boundaries in implementing cutting-edge sustainability, but also on ensuring that all businesses and residents understand the importance of sustainability and commit to reducing their environmental impacts.

I will collaborate with a range of stakeholders to mitigate Australia’s contribution to climate change and improve the climate resilience of our cities, housing, infrastructure and economy. My primary goal is to influence the future direction of Australia’s engineering sector and contribute to Australia becoming a global leader in sustainable engineering practices.