Time for chemical engineers to speak out (Day 1)

28th May 2014

Communication is a central theme of my presidential year and I want us all to be more active in emphasising to those outside our profession the value of chemical engineering as an agent of ‘change for good’. Be it with government, NGOs or the general public, we engineers are not as effective as we might be at conveying what we do, what needs doing and what we could do to get that done.

Let me try to illustrate what I mean by taking my own area of future energy and climate change avoidance as an example.

Although great progress has been made in convincing governments and the public that climate change is a reality (with some obvious sceptical exceptions), convincing them of the need to respond quickly enough and on a large enough scale to avoid its catastrophic consequences is proving very difficult.

I believe that this is in part due to the fact that scientists and engineers are used, in giving evidenced-based opinions, to giving an entirely balanced view of a problem and reflecting the doubts, balance of probabilities and alternatives alongside the most likely conclusion or solution.

On the whole, most people, including politicians and NGOs, want to see things much more in black and white terms. So I believe that sometimes we as a profession should be much more plain speaking and cast aside some of our inhibitions born of the scientific method.

So, speaking in this spirit, I believe that we are sleepwalking into a catastrophic global disaster as a result of not acting quickly and collectively enough to address impending climate change with a wide range of carbon mitigation actions, all acting in parallel.

In times of military war, countries and alliances have no problem in marshalling the necessary resources and acting quickly to do whatever is necessary to repel the enemy. They do not prevaricate or look for a no-cost solution. Sacrifice is an accepted part of that response.

I believe that this is indeed a war, a global war, a chemical war in fact, with anthropogenic climate change a real enemy. So we need to act accordingly. This is not somebody else’s problem, it won’t go away or get better if we wait. In fact the longer we wait, the more powerful the enemy and the more difficult and expensive it will be to implement the solutions.

The Stern report of 2006 said this loud and clear but despite an initial nodding concern, it seems to have been largely forgotten. Nor is this a problem that we can just leave to politicians, energy companies and ‘the market’ to sort out - it’s a problem for each and every one of us – each of us must play our part in lowering our own carbon footprint, either through energy savings and efficiency improvements or by using low or zero carbon energy and accepting that whether that comes from fossil fuels with CCS, nuclear or renewables, it will cost us more, certainly in the short term – the days of cheap energy are over, and the sooner we get used to that the better placed we will be to move on with effective solutions.

And don’t rely on renewable energy coming along quickly enough to solve the problem on its own, because it won’t. Every individual also has a role to play by lobbying politicians and being part of a public opinion seed change, that provides the impetus to make the necessary changes to political will, financial incentives and rapid technology change.

We need to personalise the arguments and the mechanisms: ‘this may not directly affect you, but it will almost certainly be a reality for your grandchildren unless we take this dramatic action’.

We should explore further the idea of personal carbon quotas that would bring this home to every individual and give them both the incentive to reduce their carbon footprint and also the scope to manage the way they do it, to fit best with their personal, family and career circumstances.

Of course, we need to develop renewable energy of many types as rapidly and cost-effectively as we can – and in the UK to replace and grow our nuclear capacity – but the timescales of both options is decades and even by the middle of this century we will still be using at least 50% fossil fuels. So we have got to take the carbon out of fossil fuels before it is released to the atmosphere, by CCS from centralised facilities or by keeping the carbon underground. We must also use more gas, including shale gas.

We do not have time to go into the detailed arguments for and against shale gas in this blog, but the focus of debate is far too often on the environmental risks from exploiting this major resource rather than stressing the large environmental benefit of 50% CO2 reductions. As chemical engineers I believe we ought to be out there providing both the public reassurance of the net benefits as well as the safe technical solutions. The same sorts of issues arise in addressing the other major global challenges of water, food and health.

So I encourage all chemical engineers to take the opportunity to engage on these major issues wherever possible and to provide clear messages and information where you believe this is required and valid.

Some will feel more comfortable with this than others, so to promote this I plan to encourage and expand our Media Envoys scheme by identifying more people who want to play an active role, using IChemE to promote them and find them opportunities to access the media.

I also want to identify more chemical engineering role models…young engineers who will define the future as well as those whose experience and achievement brings insight, female engineers, engineers from across the world – all making a difference, showing how chemical engineering matters and inspiring others to join the profession and do the same.