What does the Paris Climate Change Treaty mean for engineers?

The Paris climate change agreement has received rather more praise than detailed explanations.  Public discussion during the meeting seemed remarkably muted, perhaps for fear of reawakening ghosts of acrimonious disagreement from Copenhagen, 6 years earlier. I was in Paris on leave for the last few days of the meeting and far more media attention focused on European immigration, Syrian refugees, and the widely expected resurgence of the far-right National Front in local elections.  The National Front lost, the Paris agreement was applauded: everyone sighed with relief and switched attention to Christmas and Star Wars 8. Climate Change quickly vanished as exhausted delegations left Paris.

Galleries-Lafayette-Window 151212

Galleries Lafayette had this stunning Christmas play on Star Wars among
elaborately decorated windows to draw crowds of shoppers.

I believe that the Paris Agreement will soon re-emerge as one of the most significant developments influencing engineering in this century.  It may not have received much media attention yet, but it demands close attention from all of us.

This agreement places enormous responsibilities on us as engineers and the world’s expectations are daunting.

The agreement has to be ratified and the world’s leading economies need to sign up before it can come into force.  There have been several sceptical comments since the agreement was announced, for example, arguing that many countries have defaulted on earlier climate promises. Critics point to weak enforcement provisions and ambiguities, and there is much still to be done on emissions monitoring.  However, we can only make progress with emission reductions if the vast majority of nations cooperate, and the Paris Treaty signed by 195 representatives is almost without precedent, and certainly marks  a new level of global collaboration. With good will and strong leadership from the USA, India and China I think we will see this agreement come into force by late 2016.

The most remarkable aspects of this agreement lie in two key provisions.

The first is a system of individual legally binding voluntary reductions in greenhouse emissions established in response to the failure to agree on a uniform binding system in Copenhagen. Each country (or regional groups of countries) will work out their own emissions reduction strategy, taking their unique circumstances into account: an “intended nationally determined contribution” (INDC, Articles 3, 4).

The second remarkable aspect is agreement on an ambitious target, aiming in Art. 2 for:

(a) Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change;

Few expected unanimous agreement on such an ambitious target, much tougher than the INDCs announced before the Paris meeting.

So what happened at the meeting? What were the factors that made all the country representatives agree? No doubt, the skills and experience of French diplomacy under the leadership of foreign minister Laurent Fabius played a part, along with years of preparation.  The cooperative atmosphere created by allowing countries to figure out their own emission reduction responses also helped. However, with the world’s average temperature rise since pre-industrial times now passing 1 °C, and accelerating, climate change has become obvious for most delegates in their lifetimes. Almost unbearable pollution leading to deep resentment in Chinese cities, droughts, storms, and desertification have at long last shifted public perceptions creating space for political leaders to act decisively.  For the first time in two decades, global decision making is being driven by scientific predictions on the consequences of greenhouse emissions.

You can begin to appreciate the challenges that confront us as engineers when you look at the numbers in Article 2(a) reproduced above.  As of today, we have already reached about two thirds of the maximum desirable level of greenhouses gases in the atmosphere.  In the industrialised world, we will have to rapidly reduce our emissions so that developing countries can industrialise, though with much lower emission levels.  These reductions will have to come sooner than many people think right now, pushing our innovation capacity to the limit.

Industrialised countries will also have to provide financial assistance to the developing world to make this happen (Art. 9). Industrialised countries will also transfer technology (Art. 10) and help build technological capacity in the developing world (Art. 11) so that poverty reduction and social development can continue at the same time.

The Agreement contains many supporting provisions such as guidance on future negotiations on monitoring and compliance.

Translating the Agreement into meaningful engineering terms, we need to rapidly roll out large efficiency improvements in energy and material use, with significant reductions in human effort at the same time.

My own company, Close Comfort, has one such technology. We have dramatically reduced the energy needed for air conditioned comfort in non- or poorly-insulated buildings, ubiquitous across megacities and towns today.

At my university, we have been researching thermal battery technology that will allow night-time air conditioning from stored solar energy collected during the day.  This technology could greatly reduce the need for electric batteries that still rely on highly toxic materials.  We are also working on a potable water distribution system that could greatly reduce the high cost of safe drinking water in many developing countries by building on already established mobile phone networks for payment collection, monitoring and control.

There are many other technologies that have been quietly developed anticipating an Agreement like the one in Paris would eventually be reached.

Some (and we hope ours is one of these) are commercially profitable in their own right. Others like wind and large-scale solar photovoltaic power generation will still rely on financial measures such as carbon pricing or direct government subsidies to offset higher up-front or long term running costs.

Engineers are also going to be called upon to undertake countless adaptation and mitigation projects: reducing the impact of unavoidable climate change on their communities.

Engineering responses will start in developed countries.  Current INDCs must be strengthened significantly if we have to have a chance of achieving the Paris emission reduction targets.  Given that these nationally determined reductions will be legally binding, engineers will be called to provide realistic and achievable reduction measures and targets to governments.

Our common future will not be decided in the developed world.  This will happen in China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, perhaps Brazil and South America, all with large populations and rising economic expectations.  Therefore, it is critical we find ways for these countries to meet those expectations while quickly reducing emission intensity at the same time. We also need to find profitable innovations to roll out these technologies fast.  We have to be very clever about this: we cannot wait for subsidies from cash-strapped governments.

Lots of innovative Factor 5 solutions will be needed.

Last weekend in Paris, the world placed responsibility for the planet’s future in our hands.  Transforming national economies and mitigating climate change will place great demands on engineers and our ability to innovate, everywhere. No other profession can make this happen in the time available, and it will be tough to match expectations. It’s not just about climate change, but also about transforming the economies of today’s developing nations, tomorrow’s economic superpowers on whom our future prosperity will depend.

However, to rise to this challenge we need to improve our performances and credibility, something I have written about before.

So now I hope you now understand why my book can help.  A fundamental idea in the book is enabling huge numbers of engineers to match performances that only a handful can manage today.  The techniques are not difficult to learn.  And the incentive is greater earning power. The book explains how engineers who acquire these abilities will earn more for themselves and their employers and help to make our world a better place, a much better place.



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