We have the technology, but…

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.

13 thoughts on “We have the technology, but…”

  1. I read somewhere that 25% of the Worlds stock markets are involved in carbon based energy. If you add together 90% of our energy plus transport and say 25% of food production you can easily make this figure and so there are massive vested interests in business as usual. There is a huge lag in public awareness of the problem and worse still a forty year lag in the effects of CO2 on the climate. By the time the electorate forces politicians and industry to change their minds we are going to be in deep trouble.
    Well we are already in deep trouble but is going to be a whole lot worse.

  2. In case you missed it, also of note from the New Scientist link:

    Investment in renewable energy is vital for a prosperous, low-carbon society. However, decision-makers cannot ignore the elephant in the room – nuclear power. The enormous cost of implementing 100 per cent renewable power is not realistic for most nations, so nuclear offers our best chance of making a low-carbon society achievable and affordable. Yet the incident at Fukushima earlier this year has reinforced some long-standing concerns.

    Unlike road use or smoking, nuclear power stirs anxieties in many of us that are out of proportion with its true risks. This is not to be complacent about the potential danger of a nuclear plant, but it is striking that nuclear power has killed fewer than 5000 people in its entire history. Compare that with coal mining, which in just one year and in one country – China in 2006 – killed 4700.

      1. From the last reference cited-
        ‘Taken together, the results of analyses of trends in cancer incidence and mortality do not appear to indicate (except for thyroid cancer) a measurable increase in cancer incidence in Europe to date, related to radiation from the Chernobyl accident.’
        Thyroid cancers were only measurably increased in areas close to Chernobyl where the people were left to eat radioactive iodine- contaminated food,and iodine has such a short half-life that it is gone in a few months. The Union of Concerned Scientists is an anti-nuclear lobby group, and their predictions of millions of casualties of Chernobyl is an evidence-free extrapolation using the ‘Linear No Threshhold’ model, which has been compared to saying that if a bottle of aspirin will kill a person if taken all at once, the same dose spread over a million people during a year will also kill one person. Since the radiation released from Fukushima and Three Mile Island did not lead to nearly such high exposures to local people as did Chernobyl, it is likely that essentially all the deaths caused by nuclear power, apart from a few worker accidents, were in the Ukraine and Byelorussia, ie less than 5000 people over sixty years. For the amount of energy produced over that time, no other industry is anywhere near as safe.

        1. > From the last reference cited- …

          “Not measurable” is not “not real”. By that standard, the American continent did not exist before 1492. As Elisabeth Cardis, the lead author,

          This should not, however, be interpreted to mean that no increase has in fact occurred: based on the experience of other populations
          exposed to ionising radiation, a small increase in the relative risk of cancer is expected, even at the low to moderate doses received. Although it is expected that epidemiological studies will have difficulty identifying such a risk, it may nevertheless translate into a substantial number of radiation-related cancer cases in the future, given the very large number of individuals exposed.

          > The Union of Concerned Scientists is an anti-nuclear lobby
          > group, and their predictions of millions of casualties of Chernobyl

          Eh, you’re mixing them up with another source. From the UCS reference given (discussing Yablokov et al., the source of your “millions”):

          The book is based on a wide variety of material, which has been compiled in a manner that is difficult to discern.
          Given this disclaimer, we have to discount the conclusions of this book, at least unless and until further information becomes available.

          Seems reasonable to me…

          Try a bottle of radioactive aspirin some time. No, just joking. I agree that nuclear is a lot safer than fossil, but it isn’t anywhere safe in an absolute sense. Misrepresentations like yours are unhelpful.

          1. No form of energy is ‘safe in an absolute sense’. The question is whether it causes less harm than the alternatives. Even lack of energy can be lethal.
            Energy Source Death Rate (deaths per TWh)

            Coal – world average 161 (26% of world energy, 50% of electricity)
            Coal – China 278
            Coal – USA 15
            Oil 36 (36% of world energy)
            Natural Gas 4 (21% of world energy)
            Biofuel/Biomass 12
            Peat 12
            Solar (rooftop) 0.44 (less than 0.1% of world energy)
            Wind 0.15 (less than 1% of world energy)
            Hydro 0.10 (europe death rate, 2.2% of world energy)
            Hydro – world including Banqiao) 1.4 (about 2500 TWh/yr and 171,000 Banqiao dead)
            Nuclear 0.04 (5.9% of world energy

            1. Yes John, I am familiar with this list. I also know (check it!) that the 0.04 figure for nuclear is based on the 4000 victims estimate from WHO/UNSCEAR, which scandalously, and inexplicably, has become the accepted estimate for the global victim count, though the reports themselves (reading the full reports, not just the press releases… what a novel idea) quite openly explain that this only a partial count, only for the 600,000 people nearest to the site; and that they refuse to give a global estimate. Read the reports, it’s all in there.

              Now folks that do provide a global estimate, by applying the WHO’s own methodology to the rest of the world, get figures almost an order of magnitude higher. Look it up, I gave you the links above. This changes the gist of the above little table quite a bit. And note that this still does not include the added risk of nuclear weapons proliferation — a risk that just does not exist for renewables.

              As someone put it, nuclear can be engineered to be safe, whereas with renewables, no such engineering is necessary: it even takes work to engineer them to be unsafe.

              In the same vein one could question the fairness of the figure for solar rooftop, which is mostly made up of people falling from roofs (I kid you not!), for a technology that has seen mostly small experimental deployments by pioneers and early adopters so far. This is not what the safety of industrial-scale deployment will look like.

              As for the unsafety of coal, or hydro (or high-speed rail!), in Chinese hands as neatly illustrated by your table, expect much the same for nuclear when they start deploying in earnest: safety culture, or lack of same, is technology agnostic. We ain’t seen nothing yet.

  3. On the subject of “we have the technology”, the VUW entry in the Solar Decathlon has won a fistful of prizes.

    With people like that, NZ is very well placed to be at the forefront of the green technology revolution. The government needs to abandon its 19th century coal and oil obsession and start moving into the 21st century.

  4. Even if China got an order of magnitude increase in fatal accidents per Terawatt/hour, replacing their entire coal-power inventory with nuclear would save thousands of lives, and possibly the biosphere. But their accident statistics will almost certainly be at least an order of magnitude better, for simple reasons of physics- their reactors have a negative void coefficient, that is, if the water coolant is lost, so is the neutron moderator, and the chain reaction automatically stops. That is why Three Mile Island and Fukushima only had to deal with residual decay heat on the order of a few percent of full power, while Chernobyl, with solid graphite moderator, went to about 1000% of full power and blew its inventory all over eastern Europe.
    Replacing coal with wind and solar is a much harder ask- supply is dilute, variable, unpredictable, doesn’t match demand, and the power cannot currently be stored at anything like the scale and cost needed

  5. No I don’t.
    ‘Taken together, the results of analyses of trends in cancer incidence
    and mortality do not appear to indicate (except for thyroid
    cancer) a measurable increase in cancer incidence in Europe to
    date, related to radiation from the Chernobyl accident.’
    The study lists all the reasons why the expected increase ( 0.008% of all cancers, excluding thyroid,leukemia and non melanoma skin cancers ) could be an artifact – different classifications, increased medical checks, major social changes etc – and then declares for the ‘ linear no threshold’ assumption anyway. If you check LNT you will find many authorities do not accept it simply because there is no evidence for harm at low background levels. Natural ambient radiation in some places can be 100 times the average without noticeable harm to the locals

  6. …I should add that I am happy that you agree that the WHO report — and in fact both reports I linked to, and presumably the community of experts behind them, presumably based on the balance of the evidence — explicitly accept the validity of the LNT model for risk assessment. After that, your own personal opinion on the matter isn’t all that interesting really.

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