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 Sometimes, governments can get in the way with outdated regulations.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.

How can engineers help eliminate poverty?

Nobel prizewinning economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote in his 2005 book “The End of Poverty” how extreme poverty can be eliminated by implementing six priority actions (Ch12, p234-5):

1) Agricultural inputs (e.g. fertilizer, water harvesting, irrigation) and produce storage, including roads and transport for people and materials;

2) Investment in basic health: clinics, medicines;

3) Investment in education;

4) Power, transport and communication services;

5) Safe drinking water and sanitation (without which (2) is ineffective).

Although Sachs did not allude to this, we can see that all require effective engineering, either directly, or indirectly by providing productivity improvements that enable spare human capacity to be available for education, healthcare and infrastructure investment.

If you look at Pakistan, a middle of the road low income country, around half the workforce is needed just to supply enough food and water for everyone. In Australia, less than 2% of the workforce is needed, and they produce a substantial surplus for food exports. It’s engineering, successful engineering, that makes the difference. That of course relies on lots of other things as well – education, effective means to enforce contracts – law and government regulation, health care and so many others. Once engineers have lifted human productivity, there are people available to provide these other support services. That’s what’s missing in low income countries.

I think there’s no better illustration than the real economic cost of safe drinking water. In Pakistan, the cost (including the indirect cost of unpaid female labour) typically ranges between US$50 and $150 per tonne. In Australia it’s about $2 per tonne. I explain why in my book and my 2012 TED talk. In other words, because we have not enabled engineering to work so well in Pakistan, the poorest people have to pay far more for water ( and all the other essentials for life ) than wealthy Australians.  There are many contributing issues here.

There are wonderful social and commercial opportunities for engineers who set out to fix this and help eliminate poverty. They can start by recognising the economic needs and by devising affordable mass-market solutions. The next step is to provide a credible financial case for investors, along with the reputation for delivering on promises. This last aspect is probably the most difficult: engineers currently have an appalling reputation in both government and commercial investment circles. That’s why it’s best to take small steps, one at a time, and gradually build the reputation needed to achieve results on a grand scale.

In the book I explain some of the insights gained by truly expert engineers. You can learn how they think and how they deliver for their organisations. In doing so, they earn 2 – 5 times as much as other engineers because their organisations recognise the value they contribute.

You can do that too and become a real contributor to the Global Citizen Project. As an engineer, you can do much more than adding to the noise.  I hope you take up this challenge. If you do, please write and tell me about what you have been able to achieve.