We should not sit idly by when the thermodynamics of the planet are being disrupted by uninformed attitudes

Max Fordham reflects on how the challenges of urbanisation will be met in the next four decades

By the late 1950s, engineers were comparing the viability of the coal industry with that of the oil industry, and realising that coal was in decline. The politicians did not react for nearly 30 years, until 1984. By 1973, the limit on the global supply of carbon fuel was brought firmly to our attention; we have been living with that reality ever since.

In 1995, about one billion people were burning carbon fuels, at about 600 tons per second. The population of the world is expected to stabilise at about 10 billion people, leading to a commensurate increase in demand for energy. Increasing urbanisation will present challenges that we must confront with fortitude. Engineers can – must – play a leading role. Many lessons learned over the past 40 years can illuminate our way forward.

In 2016, it is clear where we should be looking to initiate and propagate change for the future. Carbon fuels enabled the industrialisation of our society towards the end of the 18th century, but these fuels are becoming exhausted and will need to be replaced. It appears we have not yet grasped fully the seriousness of that proposition. 

The clear conclusion is that, to meet these challenges, the carbon demand for energy should be reduced to zero by 2050. Currently, politically agreed targets are unrealistic. The consensus of opinion is that this drastic change is not feasible, but design thinking has to start with a proposition and then figure out what it implies.

So how do we reduce the carbon demand for energy to zero? This is a science fiction question of course, but we should think of the implications in its asking. Where do we begin? All viable renewable energy is going to be expensive, but the cost has to be judged in the context of the problem. It will reduce once we take the technology – and the problem – seriously.

Most zero carbon renewable energy comes as work/power (rather than heat). It is generated from PV electricity, wind turbines, hydroelectricity and tidal energy. We could generate more by following the French example of building barrages and create one on the Avon and Humber. Of course, nuclear is also being considered, but is it sustainable enough? All these options are realistic by 2050; the financial viability has been demonstrated in other parts of Europe.

The other aspect of the solution is the reduction of heat demand. We have to realise that heat and work are not the same kind of energy. The demand for winter heat can be reduced almost to zero by thermal insulation, control of ventilation – such as employing Passivhaus airtightness principles – heat from human respiration, the consumption of food, the electrical work we use that is passed on as heat, and natural light.

The industrial revolution brought work energy to help benefit our society and effect changes to our environment that we tolerated. Now the new energy supplies will bring adjustments to our environment that we will surely have to accept – whether it be onshore wind turbines, or saltwater estuaries being replaced by freshwater inlets as we build tidal barrages (opponents of these might consider that Minsmere, the renowned freshwater nature reserve in Suffolk, was a saltwater estuary until a 14th century storm cut it off from the sea).

Our rational European neighbours have accepted changes to their townscapes and landscapes, and so must we. Climate change is more important than the aesthetics of the landscape.

Society does accept major changes when the urgency is made apparent, but – as engineers – we should not sit idly by when the thermodynamics of the planet are being disrupted by uninformed attitudes. Our intellectual and technical abilities will be crucial in dealing with the challenges of urbanisation, of a scale imagined 40 years hence. What we must do is have greater prominence in the conversation about this future, so the political inertia that has brought us to this point doesn’t outweigh our capacity to deal with it.

The generation of electricity by burning carbon fuels will not be a sustainable process when 10 billion people are alive. This prediction is a certainty for 2050.

Max Fordham FCIBSE is the founder of Max Fordham