Chemical engineers: start answering climate change questions now
In January 2016, I wrote in The Chemical Engineer that the Paris Climate Change Agreement was the first step in a long journey towards a sustainable global economy. This agreement represents a near-total (Syria signed the agreement in November 2017, leaving the US as the only nation opposed to it) commitment to limit global warming to 2oC relative to pre-industrial levels. The implications of this for our energy system are well-documented, and the consensus at the time within the scientific community was that urgent action was required to achieve this ambition. In 2014, an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report estimated we could only emit around 1,000 GT of carbon dioxide between 2011–2050 to have even a 50% chance of meeting the 2oC target.
Fast forward a few years, and our spending of this ‘carbon budget’ appears more frivolous with each new piece of research published. Despite the good progress of low-carbon technologies, we saw several warning signs that progress lagged in 2017. In November we learned that the concentration of carbon dioxide increased at a record speed in 2016, reaching a level not seen for more than 3m years. Despite this, an International Energy Agency report in the same month projected oil and gas demand to continue to rise well into the 2040s, with greenhouse gas emissions following suit. The need for collective action on climate change appears more pressing than ever.
This urgency was reflected in the recent COP23 negotiations, with pre-2020 actions a significant part of the agenda and discussions conducted in the spirit of the solutions-orientated ‘Talanoa’ dialogue. This Talanoa approach called on participants to consider three fundamental questions: Where are we? Where do we want to go? How do we get there?
Given this emphasis on the how, I was surprised to hear Energy Centre colleagues who attended the conference discuss the lack of engineering presence. Developing practical solutions to complex problems is, after all, the bread and butter of our profession. Whilst the prevalence of NGOs, research institutes and policy bodies at the event shows the good work being done to develop high-level policies, it also highlights the lack of attention paid to actually putting these plans into action.
Chemical engineers must play a key role in implementing such plans, and we can do more to ensure our voice is heard in climate and energy planning.
Chemical engineers can be found across the whole energy sector, and we have invaluable expertise to bring to the table in these discussions. From sustainable bioenergy to energy storage, we are at the forefront of developing solutions to combat climate change. Whilst expediting the development of low-carbon technologies is rightfully a concern, the universal relevance of energy and resource efficiency (ERE) across all chemical engineering sectors means the potential for emissions reductions is unrivalled. ERE is estimated to represent between 40–60% of greenhouse emissions reduction potential, dwarfing most other decarbonisation strategies.
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