Paul Sheerin: We must not be distracted from the climate emergency

Wildfires outside London were a visual reminder these temperatures are anything but normal Picture: Leon Neal/ Getty Images
Wildfires outside London were a visual reminder these temperatures are anything but normal Picture: Leon Neal/ Getty Images

For many of us, a sense of loss can make us pause and re-evaluate what is important in our lives in the widest sense, perhaps with more clarity due to the importance we feel in making the most of our own time here on this little blue dot. The last 10 days of national mourning have coincided with the end of a summer that broke all the wrong records, and so has been the focus for my reflection, and on initial consideration it’s not a particularly soothing topic.

Reading that the average temperature for Europe was the highest on record for both August and summer – by the significant margin of 0.8 and 0.4 degrees centigrade – was only compounded by watching wildfires outside London, a visual reminder that these temperatures are anything but normal. Even before these events, a climate update published in May by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) stated that from 2022 to 2026 the probability of temporarily exceeding the 1.5°C global warming target is now 50%, a startling statistic compared to just seven years ago when that probability was close to zero.

It begs the questions: are we doing enough, and do we care (enough) about the consequences?

Since 2020, Scottish Engineering has conducted climate change surveys with its members to establish how the opportunity and threat of climate change is evolving for our engineering and manufacturing industry. At the start of this month, we received this year’s updated view, and the results appear to reflect the wider pressures on business, and in particular the threat brought by energy pricing with its own direct link to climate emergency. When asked the question of how an organisation views the opportunity or threat from climate emergency, in 2020, 46% stated they were concerned or deeply concerned, falling to 34% in 2021, rising again to 43% in 2022. Those that see it as an opportunity or strong opportunity has grown from 18% to 32% in the same period with a diminishing balance of those who view the answer as neutral.

Actions speak louder than words, so it’s encouraging to see a one-fifth increase in companies actively assigning dedicated resource to drive progress to net zero. Three-quarters are changing the way they operate, and six in ten are progressing product or service design change to deliver reduced climate impact.

It’s also more than heartening to see examples of Scottish companies with excellent innovative products at the heart of the drive to decarbonise everything we do. Heliex Power in East Kilbride was one example I visited this summer, understanding how its technology can reduce energy costs for industry at a time when that need is essential. Its equipment takes process steam that has completed its primary purpose but still has useful energy left, and converts that “waste” energy to low-cost electricity through a patented twin screw turbine.

Another exciting Scottish innovator in the zero-carbon technology market is Katrick Technologies, with two compelling and also patented product designs. The first is a static wind panel that captures and converts wind energy, and amongst many applications, it can be placed along roadsides to convert the energy from the draught of passing traffic into electricity. The second – a passive cooling technology – uses the heat energy of a system to produce mechanical vibrations to remove heat and as just one example can be used to reduce the energy – and carbon emissions – to cool data centre server rooms by half.

Both are great examples of applied science ready to be adopted through the investment that will need to be widespread to change the course of our climate, and in that respect the same as every other action needed to de-carbonise our world.

To return to the questions, each of us will have our own opinion, but the only one that is really up for debate is do we care enough, so we can discuss that forever without agreeing. On the question of are we doing enough, the answer has to be “no”, because the alternative is the WMO and every other credible science-based organisation that informs us is incorrect. And that is not the case.

A better question is, “What do we do next?”. There is no doubt that the current energy crisis requires firm physical and financial interventions in securing reliable and affordable energy supplies – including fossil fuels – as we transition toward a net zero economy. Scotland has already demonstrated it has mastered the engineering skills to manage complex energy infrastructure both onshore and offshore, and these will be critical in that successful transition. The plea must be that whilst we find a path through these current challenges, we are not distracted from the hard reality of the climate emergency. Expenditure to reduce climate impact will be no good to us if delayed – it’s an essential investment in raising the probability of us remaining on this little blue dot.

Paul Sheerin is chief executive of Scottish Engineering