Wanted: engineers to save the planet

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers are wrong to say that Britain can't reduce greenhouse gases by 80% without geo-engineering. More engineers is the key.

The Times and Guardian both cover a new report published today by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, which claims that the UK will not be able to meet the Government’s target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 without resorting to  geo-engineering.

The basis for this claim is an analysis of likely rates of decarbonisation, based on the experience to date of the UK and a number of other developed countries.  The report says:

    “To decarbonise the nation and achieve the 80% reduction in GHG output by 2050, the UK will need to undertake a monumental task at a scale it has never seen before. Using work undertaken by Professor Roger Pielke of the University of Colorado, the UK would need to reduce carbon output per unit of GDP by over 5% annually until 2050. Between 2001 and 2006, we achieved an average of 1.3% annual reduction.”

This approach fails to take into account how new technologies and a tougher policy regime will accelerate emission reductions in the future. Studies using the MARKAL-MACRO model (also used by the Government for the 2007 Energy White Paper) and a model developed by Professor Dennis Anderson at Imperial College, (employed by the Stern Review on the economics of climate change) have shown that it is feasible to reduce the UK’s emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 (and at costs that are not prohibitive) using a combination of energy efficiency, renewables and carbon capture and storage.

To achieve this, it is clear that the UK will have to produce more engineers capable of designing, installing and maintaining new low-carbon energy infrastructure. A recent report from the Institute for Public Policy Research highlights concerns from employers and others about the lack of skilled engineers in the UK and the relatively low esteem attached to engineering as a profession. In particular, the Engineering Technology Board has shown that we face a shortage of engineers and other skilled workers at technician level – people with high-quality vocational qualifications at below degree level.

Yesterday’s announcement from government that public funding for skills training will be shifted towards higher level vocational training as part of efforts to create a new ‘technician class’ is welcome news. This should help ensure that more young people achieve Advanced and Higher Apprenticeships in engineering, advanced manufacturing and construction, which be vital for our low-carbon future. Providing higher quality, gender-neutral careers advice to young people could also help promote future opportunities in the renewables sector more widely.

Our guest writers are Jenny Bird and Kayte Lawton of the ippr

2 Responses to “Wanted: engineers to save the planet”

  1. Rupert Read

    Agreed: the real bottleneck is qualified staff. We [Britain] don’t have the staff! 😉 This is what emerged from the discussion after a speech that I gave to the Institute for Domestic Heating and Environmental Engineers last year. A massive training programme is needed. What is encouraging about Jenny and Kayte’s piece is that it sounds eminently doable.
    Of course, the real flaw underlying in this TIMES story is that it is assumed that we need economic growth as usual and that there will be no demand-reduction. Wrong on both counts, one expects and hopes.

  2. Thomas Fairfax

    Maybe we would have more professional engneers if the title was protected by law, as happens in other cases.

    Tell someone you’re an engineer, and they ask you to fix their sodding car engine.

    We don’t have enough people taking degrees in technical subjects, i.e. it’s falling, whilst university expansion continues apace.

    fyi The IMechE was formed because George Stephenson (one of the great engineers of the industrial revolution) had his application to the Royal Society rejected and accompanied by a note that he was merely a blacksmith.

    As a profession we’ve been struggling against that prejudice ever since.

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