Friday, 25 July 2014
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Breathing space

Decarbonising industry is the biggest challenge that’s faced engineers for centuries; it’s not just about emissions, it’s about reducing dependency on dwindling fossil fuels.

Is the recession good for the environment? The International Energy Agency (IEA) thinks so; in a report released to the UN, it says that the decline in industrial activity has led to a three per cent reduction in worldwide carbon emissions this year. This, it says, could form valuable breathing space for governments to get energy-saving and emissions reduction policies in place to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

It’s an ill wind, as the proverb goes, and it’s not the way anyone would have wanted to reduce emissions. But it does illustrate the way we might have to look at emissions reduction in the future: stop doing things.

That’s not to say we should scale back industrial activity, but we should look carefully at the way we do things. It sometimes seems that energy reduction measures are focused around tinkering with current processes; install a variable speed drive here, redesign some heat exchangers there. But what’s needed is bolder than that: in many cases, engineers need to take a look at industrial processes as a whole, from starting materials to finished product, and find a new way to get there that doesn’t consume as much energy. And in the realm of transport they might need to find new ways to make cars smaller and lighter, completely rethinking their basic structure, mechanics, and method of manufacture.

Imagine a method of steelmaking, for example, that didn’t involve melting metal down. There’s a downside, of course: switching to new processes will involve hefty investment in equipment. But fewer furnaces and, perhaps, less metal will help keep emissions down. Decarbonising industry is the biggest challenge that’s faced engineers for centuries; it’s not just about emissions, it’s about reducing dependency on dwindling fossil fuels. We might not like the opportunity that the recession has given us, but it would be exceptionally foolish not to take advantage of it.

Stuart Nathan
Special Projects Editor

Readers' comments (1)

  • The sentiments expressed in the article are very noble but seem to assume that the task for engineers should be to primarily focus on carbon reduction etc..
    Surely manufacturing mostly exists for profit. Unfortunately, engineers in this field do not always have the luxury of putting ecological issues first but are usually required to focus on cost-reduction techniques for the benefit of their employers. This could quite easily not result in the best option for the planet. Unless the industrialised world governments introduce united legislation to help, I cannot see any improvement. Even then, the recent directive on banning hazardous substances from electronics (RoHS), primarily lead, has actually resulted in higher processing temperatures and hence more output from power stations. Clearly this problem is not one which will be solved easily. International co-operation is needed but even governments are swayed by the power of the multi-nationals.

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