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How to grow a green recovery and the role of environmental protest

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Activists raise awareness, but it’s engineers who are working to overcome the world’s environmental challenges.

Remember Extinction Rebellion or XR out on our city streets? It seems like an age ago but it was only six months. Covid-19 pushed climate change down the public agenda for a while, although I started to receive press releases promoting the idea of a sustainable post-pandemic economic recovery back in the summer. Now everyone it seems is talking about it. Boris Johnson jumped on the bandwagon with a ‘green recovery’ speech. And Prince William and David Attenborough launched a £50m prize scheme for innovation that ought to appeal to our readers. The issue has moved on, though. The narrative from XR tended towards more sustainable lifestyles and action to force government action. They are right that time has been wasted and that governments have done too little, but the claim that a generation has done nothing will I expect irritate all those engineers working in sectors premised on environmental concerns, from recycling to renewables.

I hope now we’re seeing the beginnings of a move away from sloganised, simplistic do’s and don’ts towards more analytical, more thoughtful discussion of the problem’s complexities and more appreciation and support for technological solutions through engineering and innovation.

Do consumer choice and changing lifestyles really make any difference? Let’s not overplay them but I think they can. I have a 100-per-cent renewables energy tariff but what does that mean in practice? Just that someone else has a 100-per-cent fossil tariff instead of us both having 50/50? Does that really help to push the energy mix entirely to renewables? But then if everyone did it...

I hope people are increasingly inclined to change their lifestyles to help the environment, thanks in part to seeing quieter, less polluted city streets and better work-life balances during lockdown. That means working smarter with technology too. Some changes are hard, but others are more about reshaping consumer preferences. More people could choose EVs over SUVs for example. We investigate why the gas-​guzzlers are outselling the silent runners, at what cost and what should be done.

Consumer action can help to create more favourable market conditions and the economic environment for greener innovations. It all helps the green shoots to grow rather than wither, especially with the right backing of government policies. We look at some of those innovations in this issue, from solar concentrators and clever new aircon to genetically engineered food and the future of seaweed fuel. There are some great green ideas in our shortlists for the E&T Innovation Awards too.

It will be technology that ultimately solves the environmental emergency. Engineers will find a way. It’s what they do. But consumer pressure and lifestyle decisions can help a great deal.

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Energy subsidies

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