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Industrial Revolution - perhaps we got it wrong!

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As I reflect on a very enjoyable and productive 12 years with Innovate UK, which came after a 38-year engineering career making aircraft and cars better, safer and more economical, I have to ask myself this awkward question, “How can it be that I’ve only just woken up in the last few years to the harsh realities of climate change?”

Damascus moment

A defining moment for me was 2 years ago, when I took some Australian friends to see my favourite world-famous heritage site. As a professional engineer I have always been very proud of the achievements of Britain’s great engineers, such as Abraham Darby, the man who improved the method for casting iron and whose grandson built the world’s first iron bridge in 1779, which spans the magnificent River Severn, a river better known these days for its propensity to flood and cause havoc to homes and livelihoods.

Standing on the banks of the river, pointing out to my friends Darby’s intricate ironwork structure, the pride of the industrial revolution, a whole new perspective suddenly crossed my mind. “Perhaps we got it wrong!” Not the design, nor the materials, nor the location of this beautiful bridge, but the whole manufacturing system, in fact our entire industrial system of digging materials out of the ground, refining them using vast amounts of dirty energy, designing and engineering them into a wonderful product, then throwing it away when we’ve had enough of it. Cars, clothing, appliances, electronics, food - and all the packaging – the list is endless.

Following the iron bridge achievement, we proudly taught the rest of the world how to industrialise the planet. And until now I had been feeling very proud of that fact. But not anymore.

The science

To limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, countries around the world signed up to the 2016 Paris Accord and in 2019 the UK passed legislation to reduce our carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. One way to help achieve this domestic target would be to export more of our ‘dirty’ and energy-intensive manufacturing and material processing activities abroad.

We’ve been doing that for the last 50 years for economic reasons. I am not advocating we do more of it now, in fact just the reverse, I think we need to take a more responsible line on this and get a much better understanding of what constitutes the 300 Mt CO2e of emissions incurred overseas to satisfy our UK consumption, that’s in addition to the 500 Mt we emit here in the UK each year. From some preliminary work our team has done, it looks like nearly half of the UK’s consumption emissions can be attributed to manufactured goods and the materials that go into them.

Embedded energy

This is the ‘embedded energy’ of imported goods. This aspect needs to be firmly in our sights, and reducing as fast as our own emissions. Our insatiable appetite to keep buying new stuff is only matched by the ease by which we are happy to then dispose of it after no time at all, usually to waste. I’m as guilty of this as the rest of us, but now becoming painfully aware of all the embedded energy that’s being thrown away, as well as the obvious waste in every discarded item itself.

Change the strategy

Investing well over £1 billion in our High Value Manufacturing Strategy has been very successful over the past 12 years in enabling UK companies large and small to innovate and commercialise a wide range of new materials, technologies and products. While this has made manufacturers more productive, most of the improvements in energy and resource efficiency have been overtaken by market growth, resulting in a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

In the last 2 years I have pushed hard to change our investment strategy, aiming to re-balance in the next few years from a historical mix of 20% sustainability/ 80% productivity to 80/20 in favour of net CO2 reduction, achieved through sustainable solutions making extensive use of Circular Economy principles, including designing for extended product lifecycles.

Great solutions to ‘Build Back Better’

The abundance of wind makes the UK a low carbon place for future manufacturing; we’ve already supported some great projects that show the potential for emission savings through circular economy, retaining the value we’ve put into products. With our world-class research base and a natural flare for innovation, we now have the ideal opportunity to make a real difference, to ‘Build Back Better’ and show the world our new ‘bridge’ to a brighter, more sustainable future.

Call to action

There’s so much more to be done here now, but as I’m approaching my late ‘60s and about to retire, I call on all my colleagues in UK Research and Innovation and those out there in industry to actively help bring about this much-needed change, and soon.

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  1. Comment by Martin Sansone posted on

    Yes, Robin I suppose its ironic that as you enter retirement and reflect back on your industrial engineering life - you only now realise the damage industrial success has brought on the environment. Why leave the corrective action needed to the next generation? The retired engineers should be called to action! All should Stand up and use their credibility and work hard to correct the damage they've helped create. Its not just transport, materials & energy to blame. Industrial animal agriculture with its associated deforestation includes 8.1 Gt CO2. As Nobel Prize winner and former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu points out "Let me say it again: agriculture and land-use generates more greenhouse gas emissions than power generation."
    50% of environmental pollution and pollutants originating in human activity from ALL time is due to industrial animal agriculture - but because its connected to how we all eat, we look in the opposite direction and dont tackle the problems we should be tackling.

  2. Comment by David posted on

    Okay. let's all become vegans. So power generation is not the big baddy. Interesting. Does that include CO2 emissions from power plants?
    Humans and animals seem to be causing most of the problem. I saw recently that the Earth gas become greener because of the increased CO2