With 97 per cent of the electorate in Scotland registering to vote, and an eventual turnout of 85 per cent, it was a triumph for democracy and public engagement.
At the same time, it was a major wake-up call to many politicians who have rarely experienced the huge level of interest in their ‘day jobs’. In fact, arguably, many politicians were shown how to do their jobs better.
Some ‘leaders’ even tried to side-track the politicians, by building websites using independent assessments from leading experts around the world.
Some of the major lessons we should learn from the referendum is that public engagement needs to be relevant and use language which encourages discussion, rather than inhibit it.
As soon as people can see that voting one way or the other has a direct or foreseeable consequence to their lives, politics become less remote and more relevant.
I think the same level of public engagement is needed in the energy debate. At present, it is one that operates in a world of shady facts and figures, and has intransigent, polarised views.
One of the starting points is engaging with politicians. Recently, IChemE Fellow Professor Adisa Azapagic, from the University of Manchester’s school of chemical engineering and analytical science, attended one of the UK’s major political party’s annual conference to speak about the environmental impacts of fracking.
She presented a paper called ‘Life cycle environmental impacts of UK shale gas’ authored by herself and her colleague Dr Laurence Stamford, from Manchester’s school of chemical engineering.
Adisa and Laurence conducted one of the most thorough examinations of the likely environmental impacts of shale gas exploitation in the UK in a bid to inform the debate.
Their conclusions certainly did that. The report said that greenhouse gas emissions from the production and use of shale gas would be comparable to conventional natural gas, but the controversial energy source actually fared better than renewables on some environmental impacts.
The research compared shale gas to other fossil-fuel alternatives, such as conventional natural gas and coal, as well as low-carbon options, including nuclear, offshore wind and solar power.
The results suggest that the average emissions of greenhouse gases from shale gas over its entire life cycle are about 460 grams of carbon dioxide-equivalent per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated.
This is comparable to the emissions from conventional natural gas. For most of the other life-cycle environmental impacts considered by the team, shale gas was also comparable to conventional natural gas.
But the study also found that shale gas was better than offshore wind and solar for four out of 11 impacts: depletion of natural resources, toxicity to humans, as well as the impact on freshwater and marine organisms.
Additionally, shale gas was better than solar (but not wind) for ozone layer depletion and eutrophication (the effect of nutrients such as phosphates, on natural ecosystems).
On the other hand, shale gas was worse than coal for three impacts: ozone layer depletion, summer smog and terrestrial eco-toxicity.
It’s a fascinating analysis, but one wonders how politicians and the general public will interpret and use such information. I’m sure some of us will have concerns that it will increase the threat of further paralysis when it comes to setting energy policy and on issues like climate change.
However, Adisa charts a pragmatic view. She says: “Whether shale gas is an environmentally sound option depends on the perceived importance of different environmental impacts and the regulatory structure under which shale gas operates.
“From the government policy perspective – focusing mainly on economic growth and energy security – it appears likely that shale gas represents a good option for the UK energy sector, assuming that it can be extracted at reasonable cost.
“However, a wider view must also consider other aspects of widespread use of shale gas, including the impact on climate change, as well as many other environmental considerations addressed in our study.
“Ultimately, the environmental impacts from shale gas will depend on which options it is displacing and how tight the regulation is.”
I think pragmatism is key when it comes to energy. There are compromises to be made. But a balanced energy mix offers the opportunity to exploit the advantages and manage the down sides of our energy sources. As chemical engineers this might be one of our most important messages.
Congratulations to Adisa and Laurence for showing how chemical engineers can help lead important – and complex – debates in areas such as energy policy.