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Australian Bushfires – Image source: The Guardian
A Question of Trust
The problem with tackling climate change is not a matter of understanding the cause, but rather the absence of clear leadership when it comes to a solution. With the severity of the situation seemingly getting worse despite the positive progress in green technologies, we are yet to see a significant change in attitude or even a satisfactory acknowledgement from many of our world leaders regarding the climate crisis. With many administrations choosing to impede and even deny the scientific consensus despite pressure from global organisations like the United Nations, many of us are right to question the justification behind this serious lack of action. With a global economy and infrastructure that is dependent on fossil fuels, it is not hard to deduce the potential cause of these problems and it would not be the first time politics has interfered with progress, but with 2020 being the IPCC peak emissions deadline to combat rising average temperatures, is this lack of sincere action now becoming an issue of impatience and distrust around the world?
Global Climate Protests – Image source: NY Times
In contrast, I have been constantly inspired by stories of normal people attempting to shoulder this enormous responsibility in a desperate effort to make real change. I regularly follow the activist Greta Thunberg in her school strike that has famously led her around the world protesting the lack of climate action – which has resolved many people to do the same. There is a rapidly growing interest in sustainability and renewable energy, and with the electric car market set to explode over the next year or so, it’s certainly not all bad news. However, the underlying issue still remains and while so much of our infrastructure is dependent on fossil fuels, it only ever seems possible to reduce our carbon footprint, not remove it entirely. So, in the interest of real change, how do we go about reducing our dependencies on this polluting infrastructure?
The Sustainable Living Movement
More than half of all global emissions are the result of the energy sector and while in the UK the implementation of renewable energy generation is improving for large scale projects, the incentive to invest at a local level seems to have gotten worse. With the financial incentives of the feed-in tariff for domestic solar systems being slashed year after year, any interest in small-scale solar array systems has been diminished due to the poor return. In a similar trend, the grant offered on the purchase of any new electric cars by the UK government has also been cut, which raises some scepticism about our ability to meet our zero-carbon deadline. Most recent emissions breakdown by sector – Image source: europa.eu
These concerns are undoubtedly the driving force behind a significant shift in culture towards cost-efficient, sustainable living, especially in the younger generations who are becoming ever more dissatisfied with our debt-based society, the rising cost of housing and interest on student loans – count me as one of them. The growth of the tiny-home movement in the west is, therefore, no coincidence, where people actively seek to live in small, sustainable, low-impact dwellings where house-prices, cost-of-living, and working-culture are a serious threat to physical and mental health.
The growing popularity of tiny homes and my personal ambition, vanlife –
Image source: The Meaning of VanLife
Clearly then there is a serious demand of governments to facilitate alternative living culture, coupled with the falling costs of renewables and the development of affordable storage technologies, independence from the fossil fuel infrastructure is now a realistic option.
The Trouble with Transport
With transport and logistics representing the second-biggest percentage of global carbon emissions after energy, it is easy to understand why there is a serious call for change in the sector. The rapid increase in demand for electric cars promises a significant fall in emissions, which is excellent news and will likely see a swift scaling into larger logistics platforms as the technology is developed further. However, the majority of electrical energy generated around the world still comes from fossil fuels, so while owning an electric car may save you money on fuel bills, currently their green potential is being grossly wasted by offsetting these emissions to dirty power stations. The UK is actually one of the best places to own an electric vehicle where we have increased our renewables output in 2019 to 38.9% in comparison with other countries like the US which has plateaued at 18%.
The Peugeot e208 is one of many electric cars released this year – Image source: Autocar
These figures emphasise the need for continuous development of renewable sources as the demand on our infrastructure grows to accommodate the swift evolution of electric transport. However, while the cost of electric cars is still relatively high, the market growth in lightweight commuters such as e-mopeds and e-bikes presents an attractive alternative and the pressure for legal regulation of electric scooters and skateboards in the UK promises to open up more options in the near future. However, while we are still anticipating the maturity of electric transport, is there a way to make better use of our existing technology and infrastructure to help reduce our carbon footprint?
Cleaner Fuels for the Future
Ever since the VW emissions scandal, legislators have come down hard on diesel cars in an effort to reduce the negative effects on air quality and the climate, despite the clear contradiction in their earlier pro-diesel campaigns. Understandable, but in many ways, the diesel engine is still far superior to its spark-ignition siblings and a brilliant piece of engineering that is a victim of reactive politics. If we consider the injustice to the original diesel prototypes that ran on cleaner-burning peanut and vegetable oil, it begs questioning why oil companies are not under a lot more scrutiny to clean-up their product and why the general public is also now a victim of their profiteering? Projected warming with different levels of climate action – Image source: BBC
The top five oil companies have spent a total of £153m annually, campaigning against climate action and if the world is to honour its 2050 net-zero emission targets, this needs to change now. Automakers have made large strides in the development of electric vehicles over the last few years and have improved the efficiency of their engines through the use of hybrid technologies. These changes are largely in relation to stricter European emission standards but again, why are fossil fuel producers themselves still largely untouchable? The latest European E10 standard gives fuel suppliers the option to add 10% bioethanol to their petrol mixtures which, while certainly being an improvement, feels somewhat benign.
E10 fuels expected to arrive in the UK sometime in 2020 – Image source: RAC
The sustainability of bioethanol fuel remains a contentious issue within the community, with criticisms made over inefficient land-utilisation and a general scepticism over the accuracy of its carbon-neutral claims. In this regard, there are many good examples of vehicles running a range of alternative cleaner-burning fuels, much like the classic example of running an old diesel engine on recycled cooking oil or running a spark-ignition engine on alternative gases such as methane. The Japanese car manufacturer Mazda has even successfully modified one of its rotary engines to run on hydrogen gas, remarkably demonstrating the feasibility of a hydrogen economy that can be extracted from water and renewable electricity.
Mazda's Hydrogen Rotary Project – Image source: Mazda
This proves that there are options available for consideration now and while some may be shorter-term or limited on a larger scale, there are still choices we can make on both an individual and international level to improve our carbon emissions and dependence on polluting infrastructure.
A Serious Issue of Sustainability
Historically, we have relied on the assumption that any resources taken from the natural world are available for consumption ad infinitum, with the spoils of the industrial revolution facilitating the rapid growth of our society and economy. However, with the world’s population ever on the rise and the demand for resources growing, the landscape of the Earth is changing at a previously unprecedented rate and there is now a serious need to address the “fairy tales of eternal economic growth” as stated by Greta Thunberg in her 2019 speech to the United Nations in New York. Major carbon-sinks like the Amazon are being felled and burned for agricultural uses while rising ocean temperatures, pollution, and overfishing has led to a decline in the aquatic ecosystem. In this regard, we should be deeply concerned that the world continues to take our declining ecosystem for granted and ask if we have grown beyond our means to survive sustainably, or whether it is just too inconvenient to care about?
“This is an urgent problem that has to be solved and, what's more, we know how to do it – that's the paradoxical thing, that we're refusing to take steps that we know have to be taken." – Sir David Attenborough, BBC News Interview
Given the abundance of renewable and sustainable technologies already available and the urgency of the current environmental crisis, there is no reasonable excuse for the delay in their wide-spread implementation. The development of renewable power, transport, and storage technologies presents many scalable end-to-end infrastructure solutions with the ability to eliminate carbon-emissions around the world. The development of AI, IoT, Robotics and Industry 4.0 enables us to maximise the efficiency and land-utilisation of many contemporary processes such as vertical farming and warehouse management, that frees-up space for the planting of trees and other carbon scrubbing operations. Given the scope and continuous development of these sustainable technologies, it is difficult to accept the resistance shown by key administrations in adopting any of these solutions, making it ever more important for concerned individuals to lead by example and demonstrate the need for these solutions before any further damage is done.
A Call to Action
In this article, we discussed the different challenges imposed on our efforts to tackle the climate crisis. Many of these issues stem from the ubiquitous use of legacy infrastructure and the predictable resistance to change, despite the maturity and range of alternative solutions available. In light of the mounting pressures from global scientific and environmental groups, it is getting difficult to accept the continued denialism seen around the world that is affected by more deeply rooted political and social issues.
Clearly then, there is a serious demand for sincere, more informed and decisive leadership that is capable of encouraging and inspiring a global culture of sustainability. In this regard, we should consider our role as practical leaders in the application of any new technologies and whether this is a perfect opportunity for the engineering community to shine? As makers and engineers, I would love to see the DesignSpark community apply itself to finding novel and creative ways to tackle the climate crisis and involve itself in more open discussions as practical thought-leaders of the future.