Melting glacier

It’s not just the polar bears at risk (Day 163)

Polar bearA common image of mankind’s influence on our planet is to show its impact on nature and wildlife.

In relation to climate change, the plight of the polar bear is often highlighted. But should that image now include humans?

By the end of the century it may be a reality – certainly the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) think so.

In my role as a professor of energy engineering and my previous stern warnings about our dangerously low rate of progress in reducing carbon emissions, you can imagine that I had been eagerly anticipating last Sunday’s release of the IPCC’s Synthesis Report.

The report contains the strongest statements yet by the IPCC about how serious the consequences of continued release of greenhouses gases are likely to be, and the urgency with which governments, corporations and the general public need to act.

They stated unequivocally that the evidence for anthropogenic climate change is incontrovertible. As a result, the future use of fossil fuels is ‘unacceptable’ unless much of the emitted CO2 is prevented from reaching the atmosphere through Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).

As the name suggests, CCS is the capture and storage of CO2 from power plants and industrial sites that burn fossil fuels.

This echoes the concerns that I have been expressing for a long time now, that the current rate of implementation of CCS and other low carbon technologies is lamentably slow. We are sleepwalking into a future where the catastrophic consequences of climate change are unavoidable.

I should point out that a few of my fellow chemical engineers do not agree with me on this, but the vast majority do and the evidence from IPCC and elsewhere overwhelmingly supports this view.

There are fewer than 20 large-scale CCS projects in the pipeline worldwide. I think this is astonishing.

The science tells us that the world needs 3,500 commercial-scale CCS projects worldwide by 2050 – so we need to be installing about 100 every year.

This is alongside all the other things we need to be doing: improving energy efficiency, increasing renewable energy and building new nuclear power stations. This is a colossal challenge – but I’m sure it’s still achievable.

And so it frustrates me enormously that commentators frequently say that CCS is still ‘technology in its early stage of development’. While continued R&D may be needed to bring costs down and improve efficiency, the technology has existed for many years, is well-developed and is just waiting to be implemented.

The problem is working out who will pay for it. One day, an effective carbon price may drive CCS through market forces, but widespread introduction of CCS needs to be kick-started by government intervention.

This needs to be backed up by public support for sharing the associated costs between government, corporations and citizens in an equitable, transparent and socially acceptable manner. The sooner this happens, the cheaper it will be.

Some may argue that this is too hard, but I firmly believe the public can accept that if we are to hand on a safe world to young and future generations, we need to act now. The longer we avoid implementing CCS and progressing the low-carbon energy transition, the more it will cost and the worse the consequences of climate change will be.

Tobacco companies have been taken to court for exposing the public to the risks of health damage from the use of their products, when they are aware of the extent of the risks well ahead of the general public.

I believe that polluting companies and governments similarly have a moral obligation to protect the public from the potential environmental catastrophe that results from an above 2 degrees centigrade rise in mean global temperatures.

The time for talking is over, the time for action is now!

7 thoughts on “It’s not just the polar bears at risk (Day 163)”

  1. “With breathtaking insolence they have taken the stores of carbon that Gaia buried to keep oxygen at its proper levels and burnt them” So said James Lovelock on page 187 of his book “Revenge of Gaia” first published in 2006, the same year that the IChemE awarded him the John Collier Medal at the IEE in London when he gave a lecture on the theme of “Global Heating”.

    James Hansen in his book “Storms of my Grandchildren” published in 2009 said in the opening paragraph of the preface “The startling conclusion is that continued exploitation of all fossil fuels on Earth threatens not only the other millions of species on the planet but also the survival of humanity itself – and the timetable is shorter than we thought”. Thanks Andrew Furlong for bringing this book to my notice a few years ago during an IChemE climate change blog. My first grandchild is coming up to 3 months old, so she too is now included in the authors dedication of this book “to all the world’s grandchildren”

    Professor David MacKay in his book “Sustainable Energy – without the hot air”, first published in 2008 and free to download at, makes the options and choices very clear. Sir David King Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government 2000-8 said of this book “This remarkable book sets out, with enormous clarity and objectivity, the various alternative low-carbon pathways that are open to us”. Tony Juniper, Former Executive Director, Friends of the Earth said ” For anyone with influence on energy policy, whether in government, business or a campaign group, this book should be compulsory reading”

    Regarding CCS, there was a half day meeting on this subject organised by the IChemE in London a few years ago which I attended along with some 50 or so others. The impression I gained from some of the presentations was that there were still very many unknowns. One particular unknown was whether mixing of CO2 bearing streams with different compositions from a number of different industrial processes would result in hydrate formation causing blocking of the pipelines to the storage reservoir. Are we any nearer to answering questions such as this?


  2. I couldn’t agree more with Geoff. More useful ammunition can be found in Naomi Klein’s new book “This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. The Climate”.


  3. I believe that Miles is making some good points but we need to be looking at carbon capture as well. However, I believe that we need to look at how we can may good use of the captured carbon so that economics of carbon capture are more favourable.


  4. Well said Geoff. But should we be placing our reliance on one technology (CCS). Chemical Engineers should be involved in all means of producing energy supply with zero or very low emissions of GHG’s. Some obvious candidates are Nuclear Power, solar capture through wind water or directly through PV and looking further ahead we should at least be exploring the possibility of fusion with much more determination. To bring these about we need economic and regulatory instruments that discourage GHG emissions in a big way. They have to be rationed or priced so that enterprising people will develop such means. Admittedly these bold steps will not attract the attentions of our short termist politicians and the establishment that surrounds them but thats not a good reason for rejecting them.


  5. I’m with you all the way Geoff and the tobacco comparison is pertinent, but bear in mind that it took Richard Doll nearly 40 years to convince people that there was causality between smoking and lung cancer – can we afford to wait that long?


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