Saving the planet?14 February 2022

The COP26 climate conference in November 2021 featured many pronouncements to ‘save the planet’ through addressing climate change, although how to actually reduce concentrations of carbon-based greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was far from clear.

Fortunately, in addition to putting forward ideas for reducing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, two important explorations of why reducing concentrations of carbon-based greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is not being achieved, emerged from some of the webinars last year produced by the SOE for its members (available via

The first explained why many of the solutions being adopted to ostensibly solve global warming only move the problem from one area to another (‘local optimisation’). Electric vehicles stop emissions in London, but increase it elsewhere in the UK where the electricity is generated; in fact, only a fraction of Great Britain’s generation mix is currently CO2 emission-free. In reality, the concentration of greenhouse gases isn’t a local issue, it’s global. So offshoring production of goods consumed locally not only achieves no benefit, but in fact it usually makes the situation worse, by increasing transport requirements.

The second explained why not all renewable energy sources are CO2 emission-free. In the world of power generation, there’s a conflict between the trilemma of increasing the security of energy supply through using variety of power sources, reducing CO2 emissions into the atmosphere and providing of low-cost energy. In addition, new CO2 emissions-free sources of energy are usually more costly than those currently used. In a CO2 emissions-free future, most of the cheapest forms of energy either can no longer be used, or must be coupled to technologies such as CO2 capture and sequestration. That is not necessarily a sustainable or low-cost solution – even if pilot projects prove the process to be feasible.

As usual, engineering is not the problem; it’s the solution. Engineering allows societies to use energy to maintain a comfortable lifestyle for their citizens. Engineering enables running water, clean sanitation, heating, lighting. If society wants to reduce concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, engineering has solutions. But, first, the citizens of the world need to be sure about what they really want, because none of these solutions will be free.

Ian Jackson

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