When politicians set a lofty goal like zero emissions, engineers scramble.

In 1834, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of the USA: “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.” Two centuries later USAnians still persist in erecting barriers to the ideas of other cultures.

While making breakfast in the home of my host, Stephen Peel, the principal civil engineer for Cloughjordan Ecovillage, I happened to peruse one of his journals, the August 2019 issue of New Civil Engineer. My eye was drawn to a news item, “Net Zero rules to hit infrastructure pipeline,” describing how road, rail, and energy projects in the UK will have to ensure compliance with new, stricter carbon emissions rules. Earlier this year, Great Britain’s last P.M., Theresa May, announced that, in light of disastrous floods and fires, heatwaves and deep freezes, the government has thrown out the timetable enacted in its Climate Change Act of 2008 and adopted the recommendations of its scientific committees for net-zero carbon by 2050.

Disruption as torrential rain causes flooding in the Highlands — BBC News
Flooding affected roads in the Inverness area and led to the closure of the railway line at Carrbridge.

London, New York, Copenhagen, Johannesburg, Los Angeles, Montreal, Newburyport, Paris, Portland, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Monica, Stockholm, Toronto, Tshwane, Vancouver and Washington DC had already made the 2050 pledge before 2019. More have made it since.

Tocqueville also wrote, “General ideas are no proof of the strength, but rather of the insufficiency of the human intellect.” So it is that when politicians set a lofty goal like zero emissions, engineers scramble. This is what is so enjoyable to watch here in Europe, and so depressing to think about when I get back to the States.

New Civil Engineer reports that:

There are currently 64 applications which are at the pre-examination or pre-approval stage, 19 of which are road projects, six relate to rail works, while 27 are energy projects. The remaining projects include two interconnector cables as well as the Gatwick and Heathrow airport expansion projects.

All of these now have to be revised in light of the 2050 target.

On the chopping block are a £6.8 billion Lower Thames Crossing, a new M54 to M6 link road, and several upgrades to the A1. As we gravitate from gas to pedal and sail power, these hardly seem necessary anyway.

To hold to the Paris 2°C goal, we’ll now need to degrow GDP by 11% per year. Imagine half the number of commercial flights in 2027 as in 2020, half the number of ocean cargo ships, half the number of mass-produced consumer products. Then imagine one-quarter by 2034, one eighth in 2041. Now try to imagine what attempting the 1.5°C goal will mean.

Had we begun when the Kyoto Protocol went into effect in the late ‘90s, the slope would have been a gentle 2% — less than the average annual economic growth rate of the past century. By 2050 we would only have to retreat to the global economy of 1990, easy enough to imagine. But it’s now too late for that; too much carbon under the bridge and the floodwaters are still rising, even now.

In its third runway plan, Heathrow Airport claimed the expansion would only take up only 1.2% of the UK’s carbon budget in 2050 — but excluded international flight emissions from its calculations. It admitted the new runway would increase passenger numbers from 74 million to 135 million. London mayor Sadiq Khan, Greenpeace, and several London councils have sued, arguing that the government failed to properly consider the full impact of expansion on the 2050 goal. Protesters are encamped.

Artist’s impression of the new masterplan for expansion at Heathrow airport

Artist’s impression of the new masterplan for expansion at Heathrow airport (2019)

Now plans to expand Marseille Provence Airport have been judged by France’s Environment Authority to have underestimated the climate impacts of 7.5 million additional passengers per year from 2027. Expansion is halted.

In Stroud, plans for the world’s first timber football stadium, with 5000 seats and an eco-park, have been resubmitted to local planning officials after being knocked back on the first attempt.

Other beneficiaries could be the bubbling hydrogen fuels industry. At a national rails conference, a plan was unveiled to power local commuter trains by hydrogen to replace the need for expensive electrification on smaller or difficult routes. Trains in the UK are already getting solar farms installed along their routes to electrify the tracks. Railway Industrial Association decarbonization task force technical director David Clarke said, “70% of the UK rail fleet is already fully electric, so we are looking at the remaining 30%, that’s about 3,400 passenger locomotives [not including 1,000 bi-mode diesel and electric hybrid trains] and a further 850 freight locomotives. We will need to deal with these under net zero.”

“However, we need to think about where our hydrogen comes from, it currently takes 3kW of energy to produce 1kW of hydrogen, so until we are making that with entirely renewable energy it’s not completely green,” Clarke added.

According to the New Civil Engineer, the greatest challenge to meeting the 2050 target could be decarbonizing domestic heat. Speaking at the Aurora Summer Renewable Energy Summit, Committee on Climate Change chief executive Chris Stark told the audience, “Putting in place a proper policy to do this over 30 years is the single biggest policy challenge facing the government and industry right now. Unless there is a plan to deal with decarbonizing heat alongside other plans for the power sector, it will be extraordinarily difficult to reach net-zero.”

“We have calculated the capital cost of retrofitting houses with heat pumps alone at around £300bn, and the conversion to hydrogen at £200bn — both very big numbers and imply changes in people’s homes they might not be comfortable with, that’s the challenge.”

Looking out my window here in Cloughjordan Ecovillage in County Tipperary, Ireland, I am gazing at a meadow that is soon to become a constructed wastewater wetland and, as part of that, will support a beautiful willow forest rotated on a three year cycle to generate carbonizable biomass from treated sewage.

My comfy surrounds on this chilly Fall day as I sit and write this are warmed by the ecovillage’s district heating plant. That biomass energy system is poised to benefit from the coming three-year willow rotation cycle and then, potentially, be also a source for biochar to go back into the constructed wetlands to reduce odor while speeding nutrient assimilation by the growing biomass, aquatic and terrestrial. New Civil Engineer should visit this kind of ecovillage before it becomes overly concerned about climate pollution impacts of home heating. £300 billion could endow a vast expanse of tree-to-biochar wetland systems for home heating while meeting other needs in that same space. Yo! Engineers! It’s called permaculture.

In 1840, Tocqueville said, “Every central government worships uniformity: uniformity relieves it from inquiry into an infinity of details,” merely a variant of what he said about the disutility of general ideas six years earlier. Platitudes may win elections, but it takes timber and nails to build bridges. Or willows and biochar to deal with our shit.

Top photo: Flooding across farmland in Oxfordshire during the widespread floods of February 2014. The RAF’s Puma and Merlin Helicopter Forces joined the UK flood relief operation, supporting efforts on the ground from the skies above the south of England. Photo by Sergeant (Sgt) Mitch Moore. Via Wikimedia Commons:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Floods_in_Oxfordshire_MOD_45158453.jpg 

Middle drawing: Artist’s impression of the new masterplan for expansion at Heathrow airport (28 June 2019)
By Ohole12. Via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Heathrow_third_runway.jpg

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