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Comment & Analysis

The role of engineering in combating climate change

Charanya Venkatesan-Crome and Elliot McDermott, Young Members' Board

asking, how can engineering impact and battle climate change
asking, how can engineering impact and battle climate change

In this guest blog from the IMechE’s Young Members Board (YMB), Charanya Venkatesan-Crome and Elliot McDermott put forward the various ways in which the engineering profession can help to build a more sustainable world.

Engineering has defined the last 200 years, with industrial revolutions followed by the Information Revolution and now we are moving towards the Cyber Revolution. To understand the role of engineering in climate change, all engineers should be asking how can engineering impact and battle climate change? Engineering will be key to delivering a sustainable future.

For young engineers, this is an issue particularly close to the heart. The rate of change indicates bleak implications/consequences during our lifetime, and we do not want to be forced to live in a world with no fresh water, breaking down of the natural wonders of the world and species becoming extinct one after another. Instead, we want to be able to continue to enjoy the fruits of nature and live in a world of abundance not just for now, but for all our lifetime and for all future generations. Though these can be viewed as dire times, this is nonetheless a fantastic time to be an engineer and provides numerous opportunities to drive the change we want to see.

There is a lot of focus on the renewable energy sector to provide clean energy, which is a growing industry but still provides only a small fraction of global energy demand compared to fossil fuels. The growth of the renewable energy industry will help shape the path to a greener earth, but it is not sufficient to simply wait and do nothing till that happens.

Every facet of the engineering sector needs to embrace at least a net zero carbon impact on the world in terms of construction, chemicals, etc., such that there are no negative side-effects to every process. This means not just considering things at point of use but understanding the entire life cycle and what is used to maintain that cycle. The importance to understand that short term solutions with potential future side effects are not good enough must be emphasized.

The SUN-to-LIQUID project at ETH Zurich created solar kerosene from just water, CO­2 and the sun’s rays, showing what can be possible if we push the scientific boundaries (link). Engineering key renewable fuels like this could be part of the answer we need, to start living, only from what we can produce, not what we mine.

We also need to think big. Should we only be looking to reduce the impact on climate change or can engineering be the solution to completely reverse it? Negative emissions technology (NET) will play a big part towards achieving climate targets by leading to a negative balance of carbon in the atmosphere.

There are numerous options of NETs which are reviewed in depth by J.C.M. Pires in Science of the Total Environment (July 2019). Typically, they are separated into direct or indirect air capture. Direct capture methods can use physiochemical processes such as absorption or adsorption whilst indirect capture uses the natural biological processes to capture atmospheric CO­2. One of the highly effective indirect air capture is through algae culture which can photosynthesise with efficiency of ten times higher than plants. The use of these methods lends itself well towards bioenergy with carbon capture and storage such that biomass energy could help convert the energy sector from the carbon source it currently is into a net carbon sink in the future.

The legislation passed in government last year committing to net zero UK carbon emissions by 2050 is a giant forward milestone to push pioneering technology to achieve the target. Coordinated effort with industry will be imperative in order to make this happen as soon as possible. Projects and funding need to be handled in such a way that there is incentive for engineering companies to collaborate and tackle the big problems. Investments need to be targeted to achieve the most impact in order to hit the 2050 target.

It is also important to increase interest and uptake of STEM subjects in school and university to encourage more young engineers to work on low carbon technologies to find innovative solutions to battle climate change. Renewable energy does not currently pay the same high wages as other fossil fuel industries, yet the engineers working on renewable energy are potentially doing one of the most important jobs in the world. We need to ensure that these engineers are rewarded and that the renewable sector is marketed positively, so that the best and brightest engineers work together to combat climate change.

Engineers have always pushed boundaries, to find the limits of what is possible and make it happen. Now more than ever it is important that engineering is given the license to do what is needed to ensure we have a better tomorrow.

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