“One word sums up the attitude of engineers towards climate change: frustration.” That’s Colin Brown, director of engineering at the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers, writing in the latest New Scientist. Political inertia combines with continuing noise from the vocal minority of sceptics to mean that we are doing woefully little to prevent the worsening of global warming.
It’s not as if we are lacking the technology:
Engineers know there is so much more that we could do. While the world’s politicians have been locked in predominantly fruitless talks, engineers have been developing the technologies we need to bring down emissions and help create a more stable future.
Wind, wave and solar power, zero-emissions transport, low-carbon buildings and energy-efficiency technologies have all been shown feasible. To be rolled out on a global scale, they are just waiting for the political will. Various models, such as the European Climate Foundation’s Roadmap 2050, show that implementing these existing technologies would bring about an 85 per cent drop in carbon emissions by 2050. The idea that we need silver-bullet technologies to be developed before the green technology revolution can happen is a myth. The revolution is waiting to begin.
The barriers to a low-carbon society are not technological but political and financial, he declares. That’s why at a London conference this month 11 national engineering institutions representing 1.2 million engineers from across the globe decided on a joint call for action to be presented at December’s COP17 climate change conference in Durban, South Africa.
The conference Declaration is worth looking at. Its heading says it in a nutshell:
Joint declaration on future climate engineering solutions. The world society can do it and we have the technologies.
It explains what the associations have been doing:
Eleven engineering associations from around the world are part of the project ‘Future Climate – Engineering Solutions’. The participating associations have been developing detailed national plans, analyses and technology strategies for tackling climate change. The project demonstrates how greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced substantially through the application of engineering…
The technology and the necessary means are available. It is technologically possible to achieve an average global reduction of 50-85 % by 2050.
And to get there:
A new climate deal must ensure that greenhouse gas emissions will peak before 2020, and substantial reductions will be reached by the year 2050.
Four specific recommendations follow. Governments:
- Need to maintain flexible technology pathways. Scenarios and pathways based on technology provide ways of thinking about possible routes to sustainable futures but cannot be prescriptive solutions because circumstances change continuously over time. Recent events at Fukushima Nuclear Plant, in the Middle East (Arab Spring) and in the cost reductions of Solar PV energy have all been good illustrations of this reality. Governments should therefore maintain an ability to adjust the direction of travel in response to such developments …
- Must include the effects of externalities in developing climate change mitigation policies. Developing national policies for tackling climate change is a difficult task involving consideration of complex inter-relationships and interactions across sectors. In undertaking this work governments often overlook the effects of externalities and fail to integrate these effectively…
- Should help create Green jobs that are new jobs. It is important to stress that not all jobs for the green economy are new jobs, indeed many simply involve retraining and refocusing of existing jobs together with the adoption of greener technologies and practices. However, sufficient new Green Jobs are unlikely to come solely from existing industries. Support for new innovations will be critical particularly in the early market introduction phase of new product lifecycles…
- Support energy efficiency and renewable energy. The participating organizations widely agree that energy efficiency is the best available measure that can be undertaken in the short and medium term, and that renewable energy sources is the solution for the long term. Governments must support energy efficiency across all sectors in their countries, including transportation, industry and in homes and public buildings. Incentives to build up renewable energy capacity must also be enacted now in order for technological and market development to take place that will make renewable energy commercially viable in the next decades…
Engineers call upon heads of state, ministers of climate, energy and environment and all other decision-makers, to commit to, and deliver, the ambitious emission reductions that are needed at all levels to secure a sustainable future.
I found it very encouraging to see this affirmation and urgency from the engineering world and decided to take a look at the UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ website. The Institution is a venerable body dating back to 1847 but obviously very much up to the mark on current issues. I was particularly interested to see their June 2011 statement on the direct extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere. This is one form of geo-engineering which has seemed to me to offer some hope of actual reduction of atmospheric levels of CO2 - something we may rather desperately feel the need of in the not too distant future.
Air capture, as it is called, can be achieved through a number of technologies, including air capture machines, enhanced weathering, and the production and burial or agricultural use of biochar. The two mitigation possibilities offered by air capture are ‘negative emissions’ through capture and sequestration, and ‘carbon recycling’ through the capture and processing of CO2 for onward use in industrial or energy applications. Such use results in ‘closed-loop’ carbon cycles which, although making use of and emitting CO2, don’t increase the amount in the atmosphere. The statement discusses in particular the air capture machines being designed and demonstrated under Klaus Lackner and David Keith, both of whom have active air capture R&D programmes and designs based on the use of some form of chemical scrubbing to extract CO2 from air passing through the device. It appears feasible technically, but there is considerable uncertainty as to future cost levels. However they may eventually be equivalent to the estimated costs for carbon capture and storage of emissions at fossil-fuel burning plants.
Various other aspects of air capture are covered in the statement, which recommends in conclusion:
- Government support for more detailed work on cost and feasibility.
- The development of policy frameworks (which include market intervention) that enable the adoption of negative emissions and carbon recycling approaches to mitigation.
- UK providing international leadership in mitigation policy and communication of the important contribution that air capture can make.
My foray into the engineering world was a welcome antidote to the bad news coming from the oil industry as they gear up for a bonanza of unconventional oil and gas. Colin Brown refers to it in his New Scientist article:
A natural gas rush driven by the development of controversial “fracking” techniques over the past decade has echoes of the oil rush that transformed Texas a century ago. The Financial Times reports that just one company, BHP Billiton, is investing as much as $79 billion in US shale gas fields – over three times the amount invested in all US renewables in a year.
And it’s not just political inertia that is allowing this to happen. As we have seen in New Zealand political encouragement is being offered to the fossil fuel industry. Brown certainly chose the right word when he spoke of frustration.