Let’s move on from climate debates

The recent weeks of “climate action” and “extinction rebellion” protests around the world have highlighted one thing: politicians have few responses other than “addressing the problem” (which means talking about it).

Why?

Mostly, it’s up to engineers to provide options, and we could all do a little more.

I will say more about this at the coming World Engineering Convention in Melbourne, November 21-24.

In Australia (and USA, and a few other countries too), there are plenty of engineers and others who are highlighting doubts on scientific predictions about climate change. Yet few are questioning the need to conserve our resources for the future.

As engineers, we rely on science to make all our predictions. I argue that we have the least grounds to doubt the community of climate scientists because of that reliance on science in our work. It’s not up to us to choose which results to accept and which not to accept.

Instead, I suggest, we should all move on from debating the possible implications of climate science and help the engineering community grasp the immense and exciting opportunities in front of us.

As engineers, it is our responsibility to find ways to meet human needs, for example living with reasonable thermal comfort. We now have technologies in the form of affordable consumer products for personalized heating and cooling that enable us to meet those needs with far less energy than in the past. New electronic payment technologies are revolutionizing access to credit in the developing world, opening extraordinary opportunities for economic and social development based on renewable energy. Lumos-Global is an early example of this revolution: there are many others emerging in different countries.

For us, as engineers, debating the merits of coal-fired base load power for Australia is now of little practical relevance given the views of the global investment community. They think that it is unlikely that these energy assets will be allowed to operate without severe restrictions beyond about 2030. The consequential need for investors to be able to recover their capital investment within just a few years makes these assets uneconomic, despite historically low interest rates. Similar arguments apply for nuclear power, over a different timescale.

That’s why smart companies are investing in clever ways to use fluctuating renewable energy supplies because they know this will become the cheapest energy source. There have even been times when power utilities have paid customers to absorb excess solar energy. Engineers are now designing processes to run with variable energy demand coupled with smart thermal and electrical energy storage techniques.

Several Australian mining companies have realized that consumers will pay higher prices for materials that have been produced sustainably.

Of course, coal might one day re-emerge as an energy source, provided carbon capture is financially attractive. My guess is that coal energy production is more likely to reappear as a by-product of processes to create high value carbon-based products such as nanotube fibre and graphene on an industrial scale. For example: https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/scienceshow/transforming-coal-to-a-high-value-resource,-not-one-that-is-bur/11594284

It’s hard for politicians alone to respond to Greta Thunberg’s appeals for action to safeguard the future for our young people. It is our job, as engineers, to provide the means by which politicians can respond. The global outcry for sustainable ways to meet human needs represents perhaps the greatest opportunity for us as engineers in decades, even centuries.

I have argued that we urgently need to reshape the definition of engineering: using specialized knowledge to enable people to produce more value with less…    Less effort, less materials, less energy, less uncertainty, less health risk and less environmental disturbance. Preferably much less.

Engineers who can deliver on that will be well rewarded. It’s time for us all to get on board and deliver the solutions people are yearning for, everywhere. We should be ensuring that engineering schools are teaching this to the current and future generations of students.

I am working on a workplace learning programme to help novice engineers learn about engineering practice and these opportunities. It will be released with a new book in the coming year. If you’re supervising engineering novices and you would like to try out this programme and influence its future development, please get in touch, preferably meet me at the coming World Engineering Convention in Melbourne.


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