Australian Election Surprise

Some of you may be disappointed with the Australian federal election result last Saturday. Especially if you think like I do, that we need to take stronger action to reduce greenhouse emissions and also to prepare people for much warmer weather to come.

Actually, there’s not much politicians can really do. Think about it. Pretty much everything we need to do to reduce greenhouse emissions relies on engineering and that in turn relies on private finance.

Coal fired power stations are not uneconomic because of the cost of coal and generation equipment. They’re only uneconomic because financiers suspect that no one will be able to operate these power stations after about 10-15 years. So instead of recouping the money over 30 years, the project proponent has to show how they can recoup the finance and interest (hiked for risk) over 10 years. That makes the whole project less commercially attractive than renewables like solar and wind.

It’s unrealistic to expect governments in a coal producing country to rule out coal-fired power stations. But there’s no need to. Risk-averse banks and pension funds do it for us. As they will in India, China and other countries as well.

We now have engineering solutions for reducing and eliminating most greenhouse emissions.

Take Close Comfort for example. Small localised air-conditioners greatly extend the temperature range in which people can be comfortable in hot conditions. Up to 45° or so. Close Comfort can help eliminate greenhouse emissions caused by air-conditioners. That’s expected to reduce warming about 0.5° compared with business as normal by the end of the century. What’s more, people will be paying much less on their electricity bills. And governments will be collecting less taxes as a result.

In other words, no government action is necessary. Sometimes, governments can get in the way with outdated regulations. In theory, governments could help. But that relies on politicians and committees making smart decisions: sometimes they do but not always.

Of course, as engineers we need to remind ourselves that it’s our job to enable people to do more with less: less effort, less energy, less material resources, less health risks, less uncertainty for investors, and less environmental disturbance.

And we also have to learn to collaborate better: something that is not acknowledged in engineering schools, let alone taught. That way we will be more likely to deliver on our promises and improve our present appalling project delivery performances. Fixing that would make it easier to get investors on-side.

So let’s not worry too much about politicians and get on and do the things that we need to do: things they cannot do anything about. If we as engineers provide solutions which make life easier for people, and save money, we don’t need government assistance. And I know we can do that when it comes to energy efficiency and greenhouse emissions. Some issues, like plastics pollution, probably do need government action. But we need to recognise where politics can help and where it just gets in the way.

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. Continue reading