Dr. Stan Higgins' Column : Climate Change : A Dose of Realism Required

During March 2014 the outcome of the most comprehensive and up to date study of the effects of Climate Change on the Earth was published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Most of the scientists involved say there is overwhelming current evidence of the impact. The report has been well received and this piece of work is generally thought to be the best assessment we have of the climate change situation. The report proposes that most of the observed impact of Climate Change is on natural systems such as water resources and sea levels, but human systems such as food production and livelihoods are also being impacted. In addition it is reported that there are clear movements of species as ecosystems are indeed changing. The report goes on to say that adaption to climate change is starting to become embedded in some Governmental planning processes, particularly in Europe. This latest report concludes that many of the risks of climate change will be localised to particular regions of the world particularly low lying land, but we must not be complacent as other regions will be impacted by significant cascaded effects. The United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, who is to host the UN Climate Summit in September 2014, in order to facilitate the conclusion of a successful global climate agreement in 2015, has called for faster action. "I urge the EU to reach a decision on the package as soon as possible, preferably at the June 2014 (European) Council meeting," he said. "Europe has both the power and a responsibility to lead – in pioneering solutions at home; in propagating answers abroad; and in the climate negotiations. All around the world, it is plain that climate change is happening," Ban said. "Human activities are the principal cause. We must act on what we know and take urgent steps before it is too late."

The IPCC report does suggest that the impact on the Earth could be reduced by limiting the rate of and magnitude of climate change. This is where I think the expertise in the chemistry based process industries can play its part. While considering this report, we must use our least biased judgement and come to conclusions that will maximise the outcomes for the planet in the long term. For too long in the corporate world short term gains have been the drivers for investment but industry stakeholders are beginning to challenge this notion. After all, returns on investment (ROI) of 2 or 3 years only really satisfy the needs of the city, the banks and big institutional investors. This short termism has not helped many others in society nor indeed with our potential climate problems. Whether or not you believe that human activity has impacted on the climate, the data is beginning to stack up on the side of the climate change advocates. Unfortunately all too often the press and other influential commentators will present the views of those at the extremes of the argument. Mainly because this makes for good TV and press headlines. As scientists and engineers in the process industries and also those in related in the energy intensive industries like steel, aluminium and other metals, we have to become the pragmatists that move away from the extremes of the argument and help our fellow humans understand the art of the possible rather than dreaming about the impossible. We need to bring a dose of reality to the argument. Scientists and engineers in the process sector, I believe, do understand that all the energy and material needs of both society and industry can never be completely renewable. Therefore we must begin to build strategies on that foundation stone. We have to convince environmentalists and politicians that this is the case. Then we can model and determine what energy mix will get a country, a continent or even global emissions to the position that we as humans would like it to be in say 2050. Only thinking in this way will allow us to understand which methods of energy production and carbon usage will deliver the greenhouse gas emission levels that will minimise or even reduce climate impact.

At this moment in time Governments are not acting strategically. They are tactically incentivising and embracing technologies that without an integrated approach have no chance of addressing the Planets energy needs, certainly at a cost that will be affordable in the long term. A proper assessment of the mix of energy from carbon fuels, renewables, biofuels, nuclear, wave, wind and solar energy needs to be made and production agreed and mandated across nations. We have the modelling techniques and technologies to do this, the problem is we do not yet have the political nous, trust, will, nor funding to achieve it. It seems to me too many are still hoping the climate change problem will go away.

Whether you believe climate change is real or not, making the best use of the Earth's resources should still be an aspiration for all scientists and engineers. We should always be asking how can we use the fossil fuels - coal, oil & natural gas more effectively? How can we recycle or reuse the carbon more than once in each productive cycle. Why not maximise the use of bio-resources to manufacture materials and fuels especially when land usage can still provide for food production? There are also methods emerging from the process industries for CO2 capture, as well as new technologies that go beyond the idea of underground storage of this gas or even its use in advance oil recovery in old oilfields. These new opportunities include the manufacture of cyclic carbonates for batteries, particularly in electric cars, or storage of renewable electricity, new polymers, capture in new forms of building materials and concrete, depolymerisation of plastics for carbon reuse and the ability of algae to convert CO2 into fuels, and even more. As an industry we need to embrace and advance these technologies, many of which are being discussed at the NEPIC International Bio-resources Conference in Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK on the 19th June 2014.

I have deliberately left out one of the biggest contributions that all industries, especially the chemical industry, could make to the climate change agenda. This is in really strategically driving energy efficiency, energy symbiosis and also materials symbiosis. Across the developed nations individual factories and production units are located in disconnected locations. Even on structured industrial parks, individual factories often operate without any thought about how they might improve their carbon footprint through energy and material symbiosis by working with their neighbours. In India the PCPIR concepts need to fully embrace this opportunity and I am sure these considerations are taking place in the modern facilit6ies at locations such as Dahej and Jamnagar. Sharing energy data and infrastructure between operating units could not only lead to a lower carbon footprint for the chemistry based industries but it could also make a huge contribution to the economic well-being of these industries because energy and the cost of carbon is only heading in one direction for all of us.

DR. STAN HIGGINS is CEO of the Northeast of England Process Industry Cluster (NEPIC), a leading European Cluster for the chemical process industries see www.nepic.co.uk. NEPIC and ICC work closely on business development projects. Any opinions expressed in this column are those of Dr. Higgins alone.