LSC member quits over climate change concerns

Article by Adam Duckett

TOM BAXTER has resigned from IChemE’s Learned Society Committee (LSC) because he feels the Institution’s position on climate change is too weak. In response, LSC Chair Jarka Glassey has said that IChemE is materially taking action to help members address climate change and that a formal position formed through wider consultation with members will take time to develop.

The committee was formed in July last year to provide strategic direction to IChemE’s technical priorities and steer its activities as a learned society. In December, after receiving updates on a meeting he was unable to attend, Baxter resigned from the group and went public with his concerns. Chief among them are his “dismay” that there is no explicit mention of climate change in IChemE’s Strategy 2024; and that the committee has decided that climate change should sit within a broader area of focus called “responsible production” rather than making it the central priority.

“To marginalise it that way…was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Baxter, who recently retired as a lecturer at the University of Aberdeen and has worked for oil companies including as a director for Genesis Oil & Gas Consultants.

IChemE does not have a current published position on climate change, and this point was raised by IChemE President Stephen Richardson in his recent presidential address.

Glassey said: “IChemE is committed to activities that will contribute to combating climate change”, and pointed to a number of outputs from members, including the publication of efficiency guides and action plans developed on behalf of government to progress carbon capture and storage.  

Baxter was elected on a manifesto that IChemE should inform society about the unique training and skillset that a chemical engineer has and how they can contribute to decarbonisation.

Top down vs bottom up

Baxter said he hopes his decision to leave and speak publicly will “put pressure on IChemE to be much more unequivocal in its climate position”. He said he’d also like IChemE to develop practical ‘bottom-up’ guidance for practising chemical engineers. He says to-date, IChemE has focussed on developing higher-level policy documents. While he noted the “good work” the likes of the Energy Centre has done in publishing its Energy and Resource Efficiency case studies, he said: “I just can’t imagine a practising chemical engineer having that on their desk. There’s no mention of pumps, compressors, distillation columns; it is too high level to be of use to the practising chemical engineer.”

In response to Baxter’s resignation, IChemE has noted that he did not attend the LSC meeting in November where the committee discussed its priorities and that he took his decision based on unconfirmed minutes.

In response to criticism that he may have quit too soon and could have achieved more by engaging with the committee, Baxter said he could not attend the meeting because he had a long-term commitment to tutor a client on climate matters, and added: “Someone tried to counsel me that I was being too impatient but with the climate emergency that is facing us there is no room for patience. We need to face up to this. Slow moving doesn’t sit nicely with some of the timeframes we’re up against to address net zero and the aims of other governments.”

Baxter said he will continue to help address climate change, but for now will focus his time working directly with oil companies, consultants and smaller companies. advising how they can manage greenhouse gases.

“My time is better spent there at the moment,” he said.

Glassey acknowledged that IChemE currently has a weak position on climate change but noted that it is committed to help members address climate change and that it will take time for the LSC to help IChemE develop a formal position.

Speaking personally, and not on behalf of the whole committee, she said: “I think as a professional institution, we should be representing the views of chemical engineers and there should be an official IChemE standpoint.”

However, she noted that while steps need to be taken faster, the committee also needs time to work with members. Glassey would be concerned if IChemE’s position was dictated by committee rather than developed through consultation with members.

At a meeting held earlier this week, the LSC committed to consulting members on an updated position on climate change this year, with an updated version to be published before year-end. The previous iteration was published by the IChemE Energy Centre in 2014 and is now out of date.

Wider engagement required

On the call for more practical guidance, Glassey said that LSC members are working on a number of projects. This includes developing a series of practical guides on how engineers can reduce the carbon footprint of the plant or process.

“One of the things that we are looking for, is guides or tools that allow our practising chemical engineers to do whatever they can to minimise the negative impact of the processes they are working with.”

Again, she noted this will require wider engagement with those in membership working day-to-day on these issues. She added that IChemE needs to have groups of experts who get together and ensure the views presented are well balanced and based on recognised capability.

Glassey called for more members to lend their knowhow including through IChemE’s special interest groups, whose contact details are available on the website.

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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