June 15, 2024

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The Engineer – Zero hour: how engineers hold the key to averting a climate catastrophe

As the climate crisis bares its teeth, engineers can play a pivotal role in turning the tide. Andrew Wade reports. 

On July 19th 2022, temperatures in the UK exceeded 40°C for the first time. Following decades of warnings from the science community, the extreme weather associated with climate change and global heating is now here for all to see. From hellish wildfires in Australia and North America, to devastating floods in Pakistan and a drought-driven famine in Somalia that threatens up to 22 million in the region with starvation – the effects of the unfolding catastrophe are stark and terrifying.

Nearly 50 per cent of the blue Arctic Ocean is exposed to sunlight during the polar summer months – stock.adobe.com

Barely a month after those record UK temperatures, slapdash PM-in-waiting Liz Truss announced she would approve up to 130 new drilling licenses for oil and gas in the North Sea. Our global energy system has helped power enormous progress, lifting millions out of poverty and advancing civilisation in countless ways. But our inability to wean ourselves off fossil fuels has now become the biggest threat to that civilisation, as greenhouse gas emissions steadily push large parts of Earth towards unliveable conditions.

“Governments and companies often suffer from a form of cognitive dissonance,” Greg Muttitt, an energy expert at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, said recently. “While recognising the urgency and severity of the climate threat, they still keep developing new oil, gas and coalfields and mines that will worsen the problem. The policy answer is a simple one: when in a hole, you need to stop digging.”

The technologies needed to transition away from fossil fuels are well known: renewable energy and storage, electric vehicles, well insulated homes coupled with low carbon heat etc. Engineers and industry have made huge strides in advancing these technologies, hindered in many cases by government inaction and muddled policy. Despite some heartening progress, globally we are a long way from where we need to be. In late October, a UN report stated that there is now ‘no credible pathway to 1.5C’. According to Professor Sir David King, former UK chief scientific advisor and chair of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group, we have just two to three years remaining to start making meaningful strides. 

Alongside the obvious imperative to reduce emissions, Sir David is an advocate for taking emergency action to mitigate against their most pernicious effect: the rapid warming of the Arctic. The region is heating four times quicker than the rest of planet, a phenomenon many believe is destabilising weather around the globe.

“The reason it’s heating up so rapidly is actually very simply explained, because the Arctic ice over the Arctic Ocean has been melting far more rapidly than the climate scientists predicted 10/15 years ago,” Sir David told The Engineer. “And so we’re now at the point where nearly 50 per cent of the blue Arctic Ocean is exposed to sunlight during the polar summer months.”

According to Sir David, this hyper-heating of the Arctic is the primary driver of the extreme weather the world has been experiencing. He points to temperatures in Canada reaching 49.6 degrees last summer, numbers inconceivable just a few years ago but which now stare us in the face, macabre records destined to be broken many times over as the Earth cooks. 

If all of the methane in the permafrost were to be released, let’s say over a 20-year period, temperatures globally would rise by five to eight degrees centigrade

Prof Sir David King

“And you know, these extreme weather events are extreme,” he continued. “It’s not by 0.1 degrees above the previous record, but five or 10 degrees centigrade.

“Even in northern Finland and in northern Siberia, temperatures on the permafrost of 30-32 degrees centigrade have been observed. Now this is phenomenal for a region that is meant to be below zero.”

The permafrost in these northern latitudes is also host to vast quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than CO2 for short term global heating. According to Sir David, methane hydrate has been explosively released in around 1,000 incidents in northern Siberia since 2014.

“If all of the methane in the permafrost were to be released, let’s say over a 20-year period, temperatures globally would rise by five to eight degrees centigrade,” he said. “So we’re talking about an unmanageable human climate going forward.”

The plan proposed by Sir David and his Cambridge-based Centre for Climate Repair is threefold, involving a triplet of very daunting ‘Rs’. A rapid and deep, but orderly, reduction in greenhouse gas emissions; the removal of huge quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere; and – perhaps most urgently – repair/refreeze the Arctic to stabilise weather systems and buy time to rebalance atmospheric GHG levels. Including methane and NOx gases, we’re currently at around 500ppm. Sir David believes a target of 350ppm is what we should be aiming for. 

“I and a number of my colleagues believe we can have a sustainable planet for humanity if we can get it down there,” he said. “It would probably take us to the end of the century even if we were to remove 30 billion tonnes a year. Now there’s your big engineering challenge. Can we remove that amount of greenhouse gases? And globally we’re emitting about 40 billion tonnes, right? So the balance is in the wrong direction. We have to bring the emissions down.

“But the third thing is to refreeze the Arctic so that we buy time so that we can deliver the first two ‘Rs’ while the Arctic is artificially maintained in a frozen state so that it can reflect the light back into space… the Centre for Climate Repair in Cambridge that I set up is totally focused on delivering those three Rs.”

The method proposed by Sir David to refreeze the Arctic is marine cloud brightening, generating white cloud cover over the region to reflect more sunlight back away from it during the summer months, protecting the ice that builds up over winter. To achieve this, Cambridge engineers are hoping to mimic the forces of nature. Storms at sea with crashing waves generate droplets of water, the smallest of which are blown skywards to the upper atmosphere by warm ocean air currents. As they climb, the moisture evaporates, leaving minuscule crystals of salt.

“So you get a cloud of sodium chloride forming and then as it slowly comes down it picks up water vapour again and so it creates tiny droplets,” Sir David explained. “And a tiny droplet cloud is white…so we’ve got to create a tiny droplet cloud.

“To mimic this process, we are in the business – and that’s what’s happening in the laboratory here – of seeing how we can create from ocean water tiny droplets of water, sub-micron size, so that we can guarantee that we create white cloud cover or that if the salt particles fall onto a black cloud it will whiten the cloud.”

Scientists are considering the use of marine cloud brightening to generate white cloud cover over a region during the summer months and reflect more sunlight away – stock.adobe.com

This is a huge scientific and engineering challenge, requiring remotely operated vessels in the Arctic region pumping the tiny droplets of water into the atmosphere. It will also demand close coordination of multiple nations, alongside meteorological organisations and international agencies.

Geoengineering on this scale also carries substantial risks, with adverse weather effects on other parts of the planet a distinct possibility. But the enormity of the crisis we are facing demands drastic action, according to King, and the process will undergo a trial run on a much smaller scale before any Arctic deployment.

“We would only activate those vessels that are in the direction of the wind, so we need Met Office information, a wind that will take us towards the North Pole,” said Sir David.

“It’s a reasonably big consortium. We’re very, very fortunate in that one of the consortium members is in east Australia. The Great Barrier Reef is a major issue for the Australians and the Australian government has given permission for us to work on developing white cloud cover over the Great Barrier Reef within their extended economic zone.”

The plan is to test and develop the process in Australia and hopefully cool the water around the Great Barrier Reef, before then seeking to build international agreement for the Arctic. It’s the type of high-profile, high-tech solution politicians may well be keen to get behind, a moonshot project with enormous potential upside that exists outside the systemic complexity of global decarbonisation.  It might even serve as a rallying point for the gloabl collaboration required to tackle the full extent of the crisis – the other two ‘Rs’ of Sir David’s climate triptych. Refreezing the Arctic will not some cheap though.

“The overall cost of running this programme could run into billions of dollars every year in addition to the cost of building the vessels,” he said. “These vessels would remain in the ocean through the year, but only be operated – a certain number of them – during the three-month period.

“Once there’s a realisation of what is happening in the Arctic Circle region… I do believe that governments will understand this is a major risk management programme. We are talking to the insurance and reinsurance sector and, of course, they’re very much aware of the increased payouts that they’re giving as a result of these extreme weather events.”

If marine cloud brightening can be deployed successfully, it may create the space for the international cooperation required to reduce global emissions. Pledges currently in place since the Paris Agreement are nowhere near adequate and governments continue to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to the speed of decarbonisation the Paris targets demand. 

Governments are being urged to hasten an end to our reliance on fossil fuels – stock.adobe.com

“Our political systems have proven not to be fit for the task of a rapid decarbonisation, because there is a very strong capture of the system by fossil fuel interests,” Kjell Kühne, a PhD candidate in geography at the University of Leeds and the director of the Leave it in the Ground Initiative (LINGO), told The Engineer. “So you see time and again how fossil fuel vested interests manage to hold back ambitious climate policies. 

“We haven’t reworked our institutions and the way that our economies function to accommodate the reality that with our fossil fuel model, we are burning down the house and we are undermining our common future.”

Kühne cites LSE Professor Nicholas Stern, chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, who has called the climate crisis the biggest market failure in history.

“Because as of today, with each barrel of oil burned or each tonne of coal, we are destroying a lot of value. And you can put numbers to that,” he said. “You get about one dead human being for each 4,400 tonnes of CO2 emissions over the rest of the century and you get about $417.00 of damage for each tonne of CO2 emitted.

“Until we align our institutions and our laws and our incentives with that, it will be quite difficult for actors such as governments and others to go against the flow. And that is one of the key reasons why governments keep pushing forward with the fossil fuel model.” 

A recent study, led by Kühne and published in the journal Energy Policy, mapped 425 ‘carbon bombs’ across the globe. Individually, these fossil fuel projects have the potential to create more than 1 gigaton of CO2 emissions each. Collectively, they would see the carbon budget for the 1.5°C Paris target exceeded twice over. Halting these projects should be a key priority for humanity, led by governments and supported by engineers.

“To be honest, I think engineers should not be working for fossil fuel companies in today’s world,” said Kühne.

“There are 400 carbon bombs in the world and we really need to defuse them to maintain a liveable planet, and I think that the technical knowledge of engineers that have been working and other people that have been working for the fossil fuel industry can be very helpful in identifying where exactly we should focus our efforts in trying to defuse these projects.” 

Engineers, along with the vast majority, are simply cogs in a complex system that has been far too slow to change, its inertia supercharged by a lethal combination of greed and apathy. Yet while the systemic complexity of our energy infrastructure presents enormous challenges, there is also an abundance of low hanging fruit that is currently being ignored, no more so than in the UK.

In November 2021 the National Engineering Policy Centre, a partnership of 43 engineering organisations led by the Royal Academy of Engineering, published its Low Regrets framework. The report highlighted several areas where targeted policy could help smooth the net zero pathway, with minimal downsides.

Chief among these areas was building retrofit – fitting out our built infrastructure to make it more energy efficient and prepare it – particularly our housing stock – for decarbonisation. With energy prices pushing millions into fuel poverty, a subsidised retrofit programme of insulation and heat pump rollout would not only reduce emissions, it would also cut bills and help create up to 500,000 jobs, according to the Low Regrets report.

“Absolutely we should be doing it,” Professor Rebecca Lunn MBE FREng FRSE, head of the Centre for Ground Engineering and Energy Geosciences at the University of Strathclyde – and one of the report’s authors – told The Engineer.

There should be price incentives for doing it. We should be growing an industry around it. If we can get really good at it and bring in new technologies in the way we do it, we might even be able to export that industry.”

There’s no lack of will in industry. Most people that I speak to want to be part of the solution

Prof Rebecca Lunn

Against a backdrop of potential rolling blackouts this winter, the lack of any serious energy efficiency policy for the UK is almost unbelievable, bordering on the criminally negligent. What’s worse, a semi-functioning programme was in place over a decade ago, scrapped by David Cameron along with other ‘green crap’ such as onshore wind and solar subsidies. The following year, the number of homes having their lofts or cavity walls insulated dropped by 92 per cent and 74 per cent respectively. To compound the current absence of a fit-for-purpose retrofit scheme, the government has also failed to issue any formal advice on demand reduction this winter, insisting the price signal of eye-watering energy bills is enough to alter behaviour. 

“Whilst the pricing is an incentive, I think many people don’t understand what they can do,” said Prof Lunn. “And also that spreading out demand is important as well as reducing it…that where people have flexibility they use energy at a time when it’s not peak.  

“And I think that there needs to be some regulatory policy and financial incentives as well. So it’s not just about switching stuff off, but it’s also about insulation and electrification of heating and other ways of making your home and your business leak less heat and use less hours, so becoming more energy efficient.” 

But where government may be lacking, industry is ready to rise to the decarbonisation challenge, according to Prof Lunn.

“There’s no lack of will in industry,” she said. “Most people that I speak to in high directorships in industry want to be part of the solution.

“Industry wants advice on what best to invest in and what is not going to get left as a stranded asset if invested in…which makes the current conversation around increasing our oil and gas production extremely confusing.” 

As Sir David King has been at pains to point out, the time for action is now.

“It is critically important to understand, we have run out of time,” he said. “We really have to move quickly.”