Prompted by a letter in October's edition of The Chemical Engineer (TCE) expressing doubts as to whether emissions of carbon dioxide were responsible for climate change, I found myself writing to the editor of the magazine for a second time in as many months. Here is a slightly amended version of my letter:
In response to last month’s letter from Malcolm Leach, I believe chemical engineers should not rely on the debate about whether carbon dioxide is responsible for global warming as an excuse to delay development of the analytical tools needed to quantify and compare the 'carbon footprint' / 'energy returned on energy invested' of the processes we design. Some of these processes, such as those used to monetise stranded hydrocarbon assets have large embodied energy contents and are carbon intensive in operation. Others such as those that seek to sequestrate emissions of carbon dioxide from power plants reduce operating efficiencies and raise utility demands, most particularly that of cooling water.
We live in times where the planet's ability to accommodate emissions from industrial processes (be they to the atmosphere, water or the soil) continues to give cause for concern. Chemical engineers therefore need to be extremely mindful of the public and regulatory response should warnings about climate change come to pass and we were seen not to have taken a precautionary stance in respect to quantifying the risks and potential liabilities associated with the release of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases (GHG) to the environment.
It should also be a concern to the Institute that other groups are taking a lead in formulating procedures and codes of practices to record and quantify such emissions. Amongst many examples, one can point to work by the GHG Protocol Initiative to develop a product and supply chain standard, the University of Bath’s efforts to quantify the embodied energy content of materials of construction and McKinsey & Co’s work to cost GHG abatement curves. It may also be noted that the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) has even proposed that only professionally qualified accountants be authorised to assure GHG emissions statements. The Institute’s sole contribution to date appears to be the publication some 8 years ago of a procedure covering sustainable development metrics in the process industries.
I would be interested to learn if other members of the Institute feel that chemical engineers should take a more proactive role in accounting for carbon and emissions of greenhouse gases or whether as Malcolm suggests, we should leave things until future surveys show the public has had a change of heart about climate change.
Footnote: Energy return on investment (EROI) is the ratio of gross fuel extracted to economic energy required directly and indirectly to deliver fuel to society in a useful form - see the following paper for details: Energy and US Economy: A Biophysical Perspective, Cleveland, et al, 1984. Also see an article by Jamie Bull on the oCo Carbon website which compares the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) for a number of technologies used to generate electricity.