Engineers can build a low-carbon world if we let them

The engineering solutions to combat climate change already exist. Politicians must be brave enough to use them before it's too late
One word sums up the attitude of engineers towards climate change: frustration. Political inertia following the high-profile failure of 2009'sCopenhagen climate conference has coupled with a chorus of criticism from a vocal minority of climate-change sceptics. Add the current economic challenges and the picture looks bleak. Our planet is warming and we are doing woefully little to prevent it getting worse.
Engineers know there is so much more that we could do. While the world's politicians have been locked in predominantly fruitless talks, engineers have been developing the technologies we need to bring down emissions and help create a more stable future.
Wind, wave and solar power, zero-emissions transport, low-carbon buildings and energy-efficiency technologies have all been shown feasible. To be rolled out on a global scale, they are just waiting for the political will. Various models, such as the European Climate Foundation's Roadmap 2050, show that implementing these existing technologies would bring about an 85 per cent drop in carbon emissions by 2050. The idea that we need silver-bullet technologies to be developed before the green technology revolution can happen is a myth. The revolution is waiting to begin.

Climate call

The barriers preventing the creation of a low-carbon society are not technological but political and financial. That's why at a landmark London conference convened by the UK's Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 11 national engineering institutions representing 1.2 million engineers from across the globe, under the banner of the Future Climate project, made a joint call for action at December's COP17 climate change conference in Durban, South Africa.
The statement calls on governments to move from warm words to solid actions. They need to introduce legislation and financial support to get these technologies out of the workshop and into our homes and businesses and onto our roads. Targeted regulation and taxation will also drive innovation. This will require bold politics, and spending at a time when money is scarce. It is far from unaffordable, however. The UK's Committee on Climate Change, which advises the British government, continues to support the view of theStern reportMovie Camera – an assessment of the climate change challenge in the UK – that the move to a low-carbon society will cost no more than 1 per cent of GDP by 2050.
Resistance to wind turbines and the power lines they feed, nuclear power and electric cars, as well as the economic costs, all make public opinion a powerful brake on change. However the alternative seems certain to be worse. It is not only the challenges of a deteriorating climate: with inaction comes a great risk to our economy in the long term. The green technology revolution, just like the industrial revolution before it, will give jobs to those countries which have created the right conditions for it to flourish.

China in front

Which countries these will be is still an open question. India, Germany, Australia and the UK were among the nations signed up to the Future Climate statement, whereas the world's largest greenhouse gas emitters – China and the US – were not. When it comes to investment in clean technology, however, that's not the whole story.
Although China is continuing to build coal-fired electricity plants at an alarming rate to power its rapid economic growth, the UN Environment Programme confirmed last month that it is now by far the world's biggest investor in renewable energy. Last year, China's wind, solar and biomass power industries received $49 billion of new investment, a third of the global total, and it now has the largest installed wind capacity in the world. When predicting who the front runner in this next great technological revolution will be, it is difficult to see past the emerging superpower to the east.
The US is going in the opposite direction. A natural gas rush driven by the development of controversial "fracking" techniques over the past decade has echoes of the oil rush that transformed Texas a century ago. The Financial Times reports that just one company, BHP Billiton, is investing as much as $79 billion in US shale gas fields – over three times the amount invested in all US renewables in a year. This will secure cheap energy in the short term, but it is a finite resource and ultimately a dead end. In due course we could face the interesting prospect of the US turning to China to acquire its wind turbine technology.

Nuclear elephant

Investment in renewable energy is vital for a prosperous, low-carbon society. However, decision-makers cannot ignore the elephant in the room – nuclear power. The enormous cost of implementing 100 per cent renewable power is not realistic for most nations, so nuclear offers our best chance of making a low-carbon society achievable and affordable. Yet the incident at Fukushimaearlier this year has reinforced some long-standing concerns.
Unlike road use or smoking, nuclear power stirs anxieties in many of us that are out of proportion with its true risks. This is not to be complacent about the potential danger of a nuclear plant, but it is striking that nuclear power has killed fewer than 5000 people in its entire history. Compare that with coal mining, which in just one year and in one country – China in 2006 – killed 4700.
Germany's decision to phase out all nuclear power as a result of Fukushima will most likely have unintended consequences. The Association of German Engineers has estimated that it will cost €53 billion every year in Germany to close down its nuclear generation and switch to 100 per cent renewable energy. It will be interesting to see how public opinion, now so clearly against nuclear power, responds as the economic costs become apparent.
Any technological revolution requires two crucial ingredients – engineers to design, develop and manufacture the technology, and politicians to help create the legislative, behavioural and societal environment that allows change to happen. Today's engineers have fulfilled their side of the bargain. It is time for our politicians to show their mettle.