Extinction Rebellion demo to Parliament March 2020

Climate change culprits, jocks vs nerds and more: best of the week’s news

Image credit: Marina Iliara | Extinction Rebellion

E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Climate change: the heat is on

This article is the lead in a series of great articles that contributed to our November print issue, published this week. The theme of climate change was originally conceived to coincide with COP26 in Glasgow, which has since been postponed until late 2021, but we decided to stick with the theme because it remains very much a huge issue. It would have been the main global issue had a certain pandemic not come along and knocked it off top spot, but going forward expect much more from us on this topic.

For now, there’s plenty of material that’s just appeared on the E&T website looking at different aspects of this crucial topic: ‘Energy economics of the zero-carbon grid’; ‘Beyond energy: the main offenders for climate change’; ‘Recycle our grandparents’ ideas and make a difference’; ‘Climate models: the limits in the sky’; ‘What the Victorians have done for us’; ‘Storage gives boost to solar energy’; ‘SUV arms race puts climate and safety at risk’; and ‘Solar cooling tech helps dial down the heat’.

One thing that emerges from a closer analysis of the situation is that it is not as straightforward as the worthy people of Extinction Rebellion would have us believe. First, it’s easy to point accusatory fingers at fossil-fuel use in energy generation and transport as the reason why ice caps are melting and polar bears are being forced towards extinction. However, there are other major contributors in, for example, manufacturing, construction and industrial processes that aren’t quite as tangible to the public and therefore go under the radar when blame is being apportioned.

Something as simple as foregoing your car to switch to bicycle: that bike still needs to be made with a multitude of materials and paints, assembled and disposed of responsibly. The bike, as with any other product, is not a completely greenhouse gas emission-free object. In short, every product and every activity in the modern world has an environmental cost and the argument as to what is acceptable needs to be a grown-up one. We can’t condemn everything and yet we need to be aware of the consequences of all and how we can influence that balance by making informed choices. That is what we hoped to achieve in this series of articles.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

‘You’ve got to make the science fair as exciting as the football final’: Dean Kamen

In a single snappy quote, Dean Kamen encapsulates the eternal struggle to get young people interested in - even excited by - science, engineering and technology. There will always be the devoted few - the nerds - who love the intellectual challenge of STEM subjects, but their number is inevitably dwarfed by the many - the jocks - who prefer to revel in the physical combat of sport. There might occasionally be a minuscule minority who love both almost equally, although this could just be an urban myth or the wishful thinking of academics.

It's certainly an uphill struggle to get children to love learning and bookish ways as much as running around and throwing things, but there is some encouraging evidence of progress as the profile of engineers, technologists, inventors and innovators such as Kamen (he's much more than just the dude behind the Segway, he'd like you know) is nudged further into the spotlight, as key global issues for humankind's survival urgently seek solutions from the only people who can deliver them. There will almost certainly never be a 50/50 split between the jocks and the nerds, but anything even approaching 50 per cent would be a huge leap forward for everyone and everything.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Beyond energy: the main offenders for climate change

This is an interesting story in its own right, but I’d like to use it a reason to talk about questionable claims that are being used to ‘greenwash’ big infrastructure projects like airports. One example is BER airport near Germany’s capital. When Tom Nuttall, The Economist's Berlin bureau chief, asked Twitter users for their best joke about BER, Giulio Mattioli, a sustainable transport researcher, responded with: "The only carbon neutral airport in Europe”.

It is, of course, a fib. After I stopped laughing, it made me think: how can an airport be seriously counted as carbon neutral when it discounts the flights? Does it use renewable energy for searchlights? Sorry, not good enough.

Turns out it’s not a joke, or more a joke that’s on us. According to the Airport Carbon Accreditation there are now 51 'carbon neutral airports' across Europe, up from 16 in 2014. What an achievement. By the way, BER isn’t on that list. Nothing that should get us riled up. What should get us thinking is how the heck anyone can stand behind that claim if airports are essentially catalysts for air travel emissions and then call it 'emission neutral’. It just doesn't make sense. If we keep discounting the main source of emissions connected to air travel - and until we master electric commercial aviation, which is far off – there’s no point in insisting it's true. 

The joke keeps getting worse. Last year's pledge was made by more than 500 European airport operators who promised to “drastically slash their greenhouse gas output by 2050” - but only including airport infrastructure, of course.

I agree that small steps matter. That includes operators like Sweden’s Swedavia with its three airports that achieved the 'without-plane target' and will add another seven soon. Hurray! Sweden is a relatively tiny place, though, and matters less in the context of the air travel climate change debate. If we do make airports carbon neutral, it needs to happen at global frequent-flyer hubs. I tallied statistics by the Airport Carbon Accreditation. Despite its ridiculous nature, 'carbon neutral airports' largely failed to progress in regions outside Europe.

Carbon neutral airports

Image credit: Ben Heubl/E&T

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Mexican drug cartels could mess up the country’s most important lithium project

The story of how the firm behind Mexico’s first lithium mine project seems to be ignoring potential problems that could lead to the country missing out on the benefits of a global transition to renewable energy is the latest piece from E&T associate editor Ben Heubl. It’s the latest in a series of data-rich exclusive articles built on meticulous research that are proving popular with readers. If you need another reason to check it out, Ben’s work was recognised this week when he was named winner of the Association of British Science Writers’ 2020 Steve Connor Award for Investigative Journalism, following his reporting in August last year on how lithium firms are depleting vital water supplies in Chile.

The award is presented to a journalist whose work has involved lengthy or complicated evidence-gathering around an issue that person or persons involved would rather not be publicised. Ben’s deep dive into how a mining company’s activities in the Atacama salt flats are reducing Chilean water levels in an already arid region - with severe knock-on effects for local communities, protected lagoons and areas of alluvial muds - certainly fills this brief. Along with his other investigative work, it’s available to read on the E&T website. To read more, simply search using the writer's name: in this case, 'Ben Heubl'.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles