Article - Issue 31, June 2007

"Official: Global Warming Beatable"

Dr Scott Steedman FREng

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Dr Scott Steedman FREng

Dr Scott Steedman FREng

There is a real risk of failure if our political decision making process is driven down an unproductive path through lack of knowledge of the real technological issues.

On the day last month that the IPCC released its latest assessment report on the mitigation of climate change, the London Evening Standard headline read ‘Official: Global Warming Beatable – verdict by 2,500 UN Scientists’. I read the media coverage and the IPCC report with mixed emotions. On the one hand, this report contains a considerable amount of common sense. Solutions proposed to reduce emissions include – on the supply side – cleaner use of hydrocarbons for electricity generation through carbon capture and storage (see Ingenia Issue 28), advanced renewables and next generation nuclear, and a raft of measures on the demand side including transport, buildings, industry and waste. On the other hand, what was completely missing from the report was any mention of engineering. If the role of the engineers is to design, develop and deploy at global scale the technologies that we need over the coming decades, then it is all the more curious that the engineering profession has remained on the periphery of this crucial public debate.

The heated discussions that now characterise the subject of climate change and energy are part of a crisis discourse that is easily manipulated by the media. Real facts and objective assessment are hard to find. We have no ‘reality check’ on the feasibility of solutions and in this vacuum the temptation to ‘pick winners’ on the basis of political expediency can have unexpected consequences.

In the area of biofuels, for example, setting targets in the US to stimulate maize production for the production of ethanol has directly led to reduced domestic production of soya, food riots in Mexico over the price of corn and changing farming practice in Brazil, where farmers are clearing vast areas of virgin land to increase their own soya production in response to the new market opportunity. The true ‘carbon footprint’ of this renewable incentive may not be as attractive as it first appears.

The reality is that we need all the low carbon technologies for electricity supply that we have available that meet the test of timescale, maximum impact and lowest abatement cost. The real questions for the UK are how to gain public acceptance in a culture where technology is perceived as part of the problem, how to take difficult technological decisions that are in the national interest and how to deliver truly at-scale solutions in any or all of these technologies, whether they are tackling supply or demand side. The challenges for engineers are scaling up, public engagement and demonstration.

Over the past few months, the Academy has been working in partnership with the leading Engineering Institutions to develop a ‘plan for a plan’. The President, Lord Browne outlined this initiative in his article in the last issue of Ingenia, Issue 29. The object is not only to mobilize the expertise and enthusiasm of the 250,000 professional engineers within the Academy and Institutions around the subject of climate change and energy but to deliver the independent advice that government needs to inform its decision making process. The engineering profession has a unique perspective on the performance of technology, the potential for large scale solutions and the pinch points in their delivery.

An engineer-led assessment would link evidence of the feasibility of deploying different technologies with public engagement. Working together, we could understand the sets of criteria that may or may not be important to public acceptability and move faster towards a jointly agreed set of values that would guide real investment and effective action.

There is a real risk of failure if our political decision making process is driven down an unproductive path through lack of knowledge of the real technological issues. Indeed, there was never more urgency to explain what we actually know. Whatever we do in the next few years, we need to do so not in hope but knowing that it will deliver. Only engineers have the answers.

Dr Scott Steedman FREng

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