The engineering solutions to combat climate change already exist. Politicians must be brave enough to use them before it’s too late
One word sums up the attitude of engineers towards climate change: frustration. Political inertia following the high-profile failure of 2009’s Copenhagen climate conference has coupled with a chorus of criticism from a vocal minority of climate-change sceptics. Add the current economic challenges and the picture looks bleak. Our planet is warming and we are doing woefully little to prevent it getting worse.
Engineers know there is so much more that we could do. While the world’s politicians have been locked in predominantly fruitless talks, engineers have been developing the technologies we need to bring down emissions and help create a more stable future.
Wind, wave and solar power, zero-emissions transport, low-carbon buildings and energy-efficiency technologies have all been shown feasible. To be rolled out on a global scale, they are just waiting for the political will. Various models, such as the European Climate Foundation’s Roadmap 2050, show that implementing these existing technologies would bring about an 85 per cent drop in carbon emissions by 2050. The idea that we need silver-bullet technologies to be developed before the green technology revolution can happen is a myth. The revolution is waiting to begin.
The barriers preventing the creation of a low-carbon society are not technological but political and financial. That’s why at a landmark London conference convened by the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 11 national engineering institutions representing 1.2 million engineers from across the globe, under the banner of the Future Climate project, made a joint call for action at December’s COP17 climate change conference in Durban, South Africa.
The statement calls on governments to move from warm words to solid actions. They need to introduce legislation and financial support to get these technologies out of the workshop and into our homes and businesses and onto our roads. Targeted regulation and taxation will also drive innovation. This will require bold politics, and spending at a time when money is scarce. It is far from unaffordable, however. The UK’s Committee on Climate Change, which advises the British government, continues to support the view of the Stern report – an assessment of the climate change challenge in the UK – that the move to a low-carbon society will cost no more than 1 per cent of GDP by 2050.
Resistance to wind turbines and the power lines they feed, nuclear power and electric cars, as well as the economic costs, all make public opinion a powerful brake on change. However the alternative seems certain to be worse. It is not only the challenges of a deteriorating climate: with inaction comes a great risk to our economy in the long term. The green technology revolution, just like the industrial revolution before it, will give jobs to those countries which have created the right conditions for it to flourish.
Which countries these will be is still an open question. India, Germany, Australia and the UK were among the nations signed up to the Future Climate statement, whereas the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters – China and the US – were not. When it comes to investment in clean technology, however, that’s not the whole story.
Although China is continuing to build coal-fired electricity plants at an alarming rate to power its rapid economic growth, the UN Environment Programme confirmed last month that it is now by far the world’s biggest investor in renewable energy. Last year, China’s wind, solar and biomass power industries received $49 billion of new investment, a third of the global total, and it now has the largest installed wind capacity in the world. When predicting who the front runner in this next great technological revolution will be, it is difficult to see past the emerging superpower to the east.
The US is going in the opposite direction. A natural gas rush driven by the development of controversial “fracking” techniques over the past decade has echoes of the oil rush that transformed Texas a century ago. The Financial Times reports that just one company, BHP Billiton, is investing as much as $79 billion in US shale gas fields – over three times the amount invested in all US renewables in a year. This will secure cheap energy in the short term, but it is a finite resource and ultimately a dead end. In due course we could face the interesting prospect of the US turning to China to acquire its wind turbine technology.
Investment in renewable energy is vital for a prosperous, low-carbon society. However, decision-makers cannot ignore the elephant in the room – nuclear power. The enormous cost of implementing 100 per cent renewable power is not realistic for most nations, so nuclear offers our best chance of making a low-carbon society achievable and affordable. Yet the incident at Fukushima earlier this year has reinforced some long-standing concerns.
Unlike road use or smoking, nuclear power stirs anxieties in many of us that are out of proportion with its true risks. This is not to be complacent about the potential danger of a nuclear plant, but it is striking that nuclear power has killed fewer than 5000 people in its entire history. Compare that with coal mining, which in just one year and in one country – China in 2006 – killed 4700.
Germany’s decision to phase out all nuclear power as a result of Fukushima will most likely have unintended consequences. The Association of German Engineers has estimated that it will cost €53 billion every year in Germany to close down its nuclear generation and switch to 100 per cent renewable energy. It will be interesting to see how public opinion, now so clearly against nuclear power, responds as the economic costs become apparent.
Any technological revolution requires two crucial ingredients – engineers to design, develop and manufacture the technology, and politicians to help create the legislative, behavioural and societal environment that allows change to happen. Today’s engineers have fulfilled their side of the bargain. It is time for our politicians to show their mettle.
Colin Brown is director of engineering at the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers
Image credit: Trevor Williams.
(PhysOrg.com) — Way back in the 70’s Georges Mougin, then an engineering graduate, had a big idea. He suggested that icebergs floating around in the North Atlantic could be tethered and dragged south to places that were experiencing a severe drought, such as the Sahel of West Africa. Mougin received some backing funds from a Saudi prince but most “experts” at the time scoffed at his idea and the whole scheme was eventually shelved.
Cut to 2009 and French software firm Dassault Systemes, who thought maybe Mougin was on to something after all and contacted him to suggest modeling the whole idea on a computer. After applying 15 engineers to the problem, the team concluded that towing an iceberg from the waters around Newfoundland to the Canary Islands off the northwest coast of Africa, could be done, and would take under five months, though it would cost nearly ten million dollars.
In the simulation, as in a real world attempt, the selected iceberg would first be fitted with an insulating skirt to stave off melting; it would then be connected to a tugboat (and a kite sail) that would travel at about one knot (assuming assistance from ocean currents). In the simulated test, the iceberg arrived intact having lost only 38 percent of its seven ton mass.
A real world project would of course require hauling a much bigger berg; experts estimate a 30 million ton iceberg could provide fresh water for half a million people for up to a year. There would also be the problem of transporting the water from the berg in the ocean to the drought stricken people. The extraordinary costs for such a project would, it is assumed, come from the price tag for the skirt, five months of diesel fuel for the tugboat, the man hours involved and then finally, distribution of the fresh water at the destination.
Scientists estimate that some 40,000 icebergs break away from the polar ice caps each year, though only a fraction of them would be large enough to be worth the time and expense of dragging them to a place experiencing a drought, such as the devastating one currently going on in the Horn of Africa.
Mougin, newly reinvigorated by the results of the recent study, at age 86, is now trying to raise money for a real-world test of the idea.
Contaminated water can be cleaned much more effectively using a novel, cheap material, say researchers.
Dubbed “super sand”, it could become a low-cost way to purify water in the developing world.
The technology involves coating grains of sand in an oxide of a widely available material called graphite – commonly used as lead in pencils.
The team describes the work in the American Chemical Society journal Applied Materials and Interfaces.
In many countries around the world, access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities is still limited.
The World Health Organization states that “just 60% of the population in Sub-Saharan African and 50% of the population in Oceania [islands in the tropical Pacific Ocean] use improved sources of drinking-water.”
The graphite-coated sand grains might be a solution – especially as people have already used sand to purify water since ancient times.
Coating the sand
But with ordinary sand, filtering techniques can be tricky.
Wei Gao from Rice university in Texas, US, told BBC News that regular coarse sand was a lot less effective than fine sand when water was contaminated with pathogens, organic contaminants and heavy metal ions.
While fine sand is slightly better, water drains through it very slowly.
“Our product combines coarse sand with functional carbon material that could offer higher retention for those pollutants, and at the same time gives good throughput,” explained the researcher.
She said that the technique the team has developed to make the sand involves dispersing graphite oxide into water and mixing it with regular sand.
“We then heat the whole mixture up to 105C for a couple of hours to evaporate the water, and use the final product – ‘coated sand’ – to purify polluted water.”
The lead scientist of the study, Professor Pulickel Ajayan, said it was possible to modify the graphite oxide in order to make it more selective and sensitive to certain pollutants – such as organic contaminants or specific metals in dirty water.
Another team member, Dr Mainak Majumder from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, said it had another advantage – it was cheap.
“This material demonstrates comparable performance to some commercially available activated carbon materials,” he said.
“But given that this can be synthesized using room temperature processes and also from cheap graphite sources, it is likely to be cost-efficient.”
He pointed out that in Australia many mining companies extract graphite and they produce a lot of graphite-rich waste.
“This waste can be harnessed for water purification,” he said.
With its dark red and black stripes, spotted fins and long venomous black spikes, the lionfish seems better suited for horror films than consumption. But lionfish fritters and filets may be on American tables soon.
An invasive species, the lionfish is devastating reef fish populations along the Florida coast and into the Caribbean. Now, an increasing number of environmentalists, consumer groups and scientists are seriously testing a novel solution to control it and other aquatic invasive species — one that would also takes pressure off depleted ocean fish stocks: they want Americans to step up to their plates and start eating invasive critters in large numbers.
“Humans are the most ubiquitous predators on earth,” said Philip Kramer, director of the Caribbean program for the Nature Conservancy. “Instead of eating something like shark fin soup, why not eat a species that is causing harm, and with your meal make a positive contribution?”
Invasive species have become a vexing problem in the United States, with population explosions of Asian carp clogging the Mississippi River and European green crabs mobbing the coasts. With few natural predators in North America, such fast-breeding species have thrived in American waters, eating native creatures and out-competing them for food and habitats.
While most invasive species are not commonly regarded as edible food, that is mostly a matter of marketing, experts say. Imagine menus where Asian carp substitutes for the threatened Chilean sea bass, or lionfish replaces grouper, which is overfished.
“We think there could be a real market,” said Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food and Water Watch, whose 2011 Smart Seafood Guide recommends for the first time that diners seek out invasive species as a “safer, more sustainable” alternative to their more dwindling relatives, to encourage fisherman and markets to provide them.
“What these species need now is a better — sexier — profile, and more cooks who know how to use them,” she said. She has enlisted celebrity chefs to promote eating the creatures.
Scientists emphasize that human consumption is only part of what is needed to control invasive species and restore native fish populations, and that a comprehensive plan must include restoring fish predators to depleted habitats and erecting physical barriers to prevent further dissemination of the invaders.
“We are not going to be able to just eat our way out of the invasive species problem,” Dr. Kramer said. “On the other hand, there are places where this can be a very useful part of the strategy.”
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service is now exploring where it might be helpful. Models suggest that commercial harvest of Asian carp in the Mississippi would most likely help control populations there, “as part of an integrated pest management program,” said Valerie Fellows, a spokeswoman.
In practice, it is still unclear whether commercial fishing pressure could be high enough to have a significant impact, she said. The Army Corps of Engineers has spent millions of dollars to erect electronic barriers to keep Asian carp from moving from the Illinois River into the Great Lakes.
There are risks to whetting America’s appetite. Marketing an invasive species could make it so popular that “individuals would raise or release the fish” where they did not already exist, Ms. Fellows said, potentially exacerbating the problem; tilapia were originally imported into Latin America for weed and bug control, but commercialization helped the species spread far more widely than intended.
Dr. Kramer is concerned that the marketing of lionfish might increase the number of traps on reefs, which could trap other fish as well. He said spearfishing was the sustainable way to catch lionfish, which are reef dwellers.
Cookbooks do not say much about how to filet an Asian carp, which has an unusual bony structure. And even if one developed a taste for, say, European green crab soup, there is nowhere to buy the main ingredient, though it is plentiful in the sea.
To increase culinary demand, Food and Water Watch has teamed up with the James Beard Foundation and Kerry Heffernan, the chef at the South Gate restaurant in New York City, to devise recipes using the creatures. At a recent tasting, there was Asian carp ceviche and braised lionfish filet in brown butter sauce.
Lionfish, it turns out, looks hideous but tastes great. The group had to hire fishermen to catch animals commonly regarded as pests. Mr. Heffernan said he would consider putting them on his menu and was looking forward to getting some molting European green crabs to try in soft-shell crab recipes.
Last summer, the Nature Conservancy sponsored a lionfish food fair in the Bahamas, featuring lionfish fritters and more. They offered fishermen $11 a pound — about the price of grouper — and got an abundant supply. Lionfish, native to the Indian Ocean and South Pacific, arrived in the Caribbean in the early 1990s and are spreading rapidly; voracious eaters, they even eat juveniles of native fish.
Lionfish, like grouper, can carry ciguatoxin, which causes vomiting and neurological symptoms, so they cannot be taken from water where the microbe that produces the toxin is found. The fish’s venomous spines must be removed before sale, although that is not a serious marketing obstacle.
Mitchell Davis, vice president of the Beard Foundation, said other species had moved from being pariah pests to must-have items on American plates, like dandelion greens for salads.