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How To Measure Climate Change and Engineer Real Action

In the heat of an escalating climate crisis and our pursuit of long-lasting sustainability, it’s easy to be overwhelmed with the cascade of global news stories, political agendas and greenwashed corporate advertising that demand our constant attention. So much so, that when the real science tries to cut through the noise with an intricate report detailing our best chances of mitigating climate change, it largely goes unnoticed, as was the case with the latest IPCC report that was realised back in April.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group reports represent the most reliable academic consensus on the current scientific understanding of man-made climate change and are an unparalleled tool for understanding the significance of any facts, figures and developments that we are exposed to on a daily basis. In this regard, this article aims to highlight some of the key scientific foundations that we can use as makers, engineers and citizens to understand the magnitude, urgency and opportunities in the context of climate change and action.

60 billion tonnes of greenhouse gasses and climbing

It is critically important to have a sense of scale when assessing the significance of any problems or solutions relating to climate change. The latest IPCC WG3 report states that there are a calculated 59 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere every year as of 2019 and this number is still growing at an average rate of around 1.3% annually, which would bring it to over 60 billion at the time of writing. Fortunately, the rate of growth has slowed since the previous IPCC WG3 report but it is also worth noting that where this report has been used as a reference in previous articles, this number was closer to 50 billion less than a decade ago!

Global net anthropogenic GHG emissions

Source: IPCC Working Group 3 Full Report 2022, pg.7

Understanding this trend is therefore essential in assessing the urgency of the climate crisis, the problems we face, the impact they will cause and the solutions that stand the best chance of lowering global temperatures in the long term. Relating any climate developments back to this number as a percentage of total global greenhouse gas emissions can easily help us identify the biggest problems, promote the best solutions and fight any political roadblocks in the pursuit of net zero, while also helping us allocate resources proportionally to the sectors and stakeholders that need it most.

Carbon budgets and the reality of 1.5 degrees

The IPCC states that there is a “near-linear relationship” between total CO2 emissions and the rise in global temperatures. Therefore, the pace at which we reduce these emissions will directly influence our ability to mitigate any damage done by rising global temperatures, and to this end, we can look to our remaining carbon budget to understand and quantify the urgency with which we need to work.

Carbon budgets

Source: IPCC Working Group 1 Summary for Policymakers 2021, pg.29

This is a topic that rarely gets discussed and yet is a measure that is the easiest to convey and will carry the most weight in any conversation about climate change. Using the graph from the previous section we can see that our annual carbon emissions as of 2019 sits around 44 billion. When we compare this number with the above carbon budget table, we can see that to have the best chance of limiting the global rise to 1.5 degrees (83% probability) we would need to cap our total emissions at an additional 300 billion which at the current rate of consumption gives us 7 years as of 2020 or 5 years at the time of writing!

Realistically, the target of 1.5 degrees now looks more unlikely than likely which represents an unacceptable lack of urgency in global leadership, especially given the flippant response to recent record-breaking heatwaves. By comparison, the highest probability for 2 degrees (83%) which is on par with the lowest probability of reaching 1.5 degrees (17%) will give us an additional 18 more years at our current rate of emissions as of 2022. This situation urgently mandates a swifter end to the fossil fuel economy, where stronger action and support for decarbonisation is required across all sectors.

Targeted action and engineering solutions

Having established a magnitude and timescale for the challenge of cutting global emissions to net zero, it’s important we understand where to go from here. Luckily, we can use the science to tell us exactly what sources need the most attention, what solutions we currently have to implement, and even the financial efficiency in each case.

Trends in global GHG emissions by sector

Source: IPCC Working Group 3 Full Report 2022, pg.344

Looking at the IPCC emissions breakdown chart data we can identify the sectors that should be given the highest priority when it comes to climate action and by using the report to dive deeper into these sectors, we can paint a more nuanced picture of the emissions landscape. From the more obvious sources such as legacy energy production (23%) and road transport (10%), to the less discussed heavy industry (20.6%) and new fossil fuel extraction (7.7%), it’s important that proper consideration is given to all of these big players, not just the ones that make the headlines. Source: IPCC Working Group 3 Full Report 2022, pg.343

Mitigation options

Source: IPCC Working Group 3 Full Report 2022, pg.51

Obviously, as individuals, makers and engineers there will always be factors that we have limited control over, which emphasises the role of grassroots movements in the pursuit of change. However, if we look at what is being suggested by the IPCC in the graph above, we can see that individual action in sectors like energy, transport, agriculture and even small changes to lifestyle are all possible and can have a notable impact especially if we are prepared to use our technical skills to lead by example.

Changes to energy systems are reported as by far the most effective and affordable means of both direct decarbonisation and well as indirect through a growing consumption in other sectors. In this regard, we have already proven how straightforward and scalable these technologies are through our own experiments with solar and wind energy on DesignSpark as part of the Kickstart Kamper project.

We have also experimented with the idea of alternative electric transport and shown how accessible and cost-effective adopting e-bike conversions can be, as referenced in the above graph. Electric cars are becoming more widespread yet there are minimal plans to move away from internal combustion other than a ban on new engines as of 2030 yet we know carbon-neutral biofuels work in older, more polluting engines.

Lastly, the collective impact of agriculture is huge, but less obvious as it is spread over multiple sources such as deforestation, cattle rearing, animal feed, managed soils, and fertilisers that have more than just a carbon footprint. Changes to diet can have a big effect but in a world of ubiquitous technology and connectivity, we can also have more efficient, compact and localised farming solutions that include anything from our automated irrigation system to micro agriculture, aquaponics or vertical farming techniques that can combat deforestation, monocultures and inefficient land use.

Conclusion

As part of the activist engineering community on DesignSpark and resident sustainability ambassador, I can say that understanding the key drivers of climate change does not have to be a headache. There is now unequivocal, quantifiable evidence of where it comes from, a relatable timescale to work to, and I would like to emphasise a great individual potential within the engineering community to be a part of a growing number of scalable solutions even if we are starting out small.

A keen maker and electronic engineer with a passion for the environment, renewables, alternative transport and anything off-grid. Man with a van and founder of the Kickstart Kamper sustainable campervan project. Grassroots Education Sustainability Ambassador. Compulsive tea-drinker. BrightSpark 2017. BEng.
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