Get set for hell and high water

A report says climate change can't be stopped so we must focus on coping with it. Neha Popat reports

February 26, 2009

For academics working on ways to halt climate change, news of a £15 million funding scheme to develop carbon-reducing technologies will be welcome.

The investment, which comes from the government-funded Technology Strategy Board (TSB), aims to support research into technologies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from the biggest polluters, and calls for academic participants.

But while the TSB scheme is aligned with the Government's reduction targets, some academics suggest that attempts to adapt to the inevitable, rather than efforts to mitigate global warming's effects, could provide the next boom area for researchers.

A report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) argues that current policies designed to alleviate the effects of global warming have been a "near-total failure", with carbon-dioxide emissions continuing to rise.

Instead, the report says, we should work to adapt our energy and water supplies, as well as our buildings and transport systems, to cope with a warmer world.

IMechE says that such a stance could open up fresh opportunities for researchers.

But in order to implement the report's recommendations, research must be carried out in a number of key areas, said Bill Banks, president of IMechE.

The report - Climate Change: Adapting to the Inevitable? - was produced in partnership with engineering consultancy firm Arup and the University of East Anglia. It uses climate-modelling techniques to project future conditions.

It suggests that if current carbon-emission trends continue, global temperatures could rise 2C within the next 30 years. At this point, it says, change would be irreversible.

Its central thesis is that while the mitigation of global warming's effects is important, adaptation to the new environment will help protect society.

It stresses the scale of the challenges engineers now face with regard to existing infrastructure and the construction of new buildings.

Tim Fox, head of environment and climate change at IMechE and lead author of the report, said that a number of areas need further research.

Among them is materials science, which can help to find substances that can operate effectively in conditions such as flooding and extreme heat.

He said that more public funding is needed to develop climate-modelling tools "to enable us to have a much more accurate picture of what sort of conditions our major infrastructure (must) be designed for".

He added that changes to weather patterns in the future will also affect the success of renewable energy facilities.

"If, for example, we are considering building a hydroelectric plant, and there are going to be significant changes in rainfall patterns, this could have an impact on yields and when it can become operational," he said. "There will need to be studies into what are the best forms of renewable systems for given climate changes."

Andy Sheppard, sustainable building consultant at Arup and a contributor to the report, said that it is vital to act now to increase existing knowledge in this area.

"As engineers we always base our construction and design on what we consider to be the worst-case scenario, because we want whatever we are designing to stand up, come what may.

"If that worst-case scenario is changing, we need to put more emphasis on understanding it ... it is important that universities and companies that are doing innovative research are encouraged to participate."

Other areas that IMechE believes could benefit from more academic research include the retrofitting of buildings to ensure greater energy efficiency and the development of underground reservoirs to prevent the evaporation of water. It also wants more funding for research into new energy sources.

"The most promising source is (nuclear) fusion. There is a programme of work going on, but we would like to see it accelerated and much more effort put into taking the technology through to the demonstration stage," Dr Fox said.

He emphasised the importance of research aimed at developing a more electricity-based economy with low carbon emissions.

"We could then very rapidly convert our transport system from its dependence on fossil fuel to electricity," he said.

"If human society wants to continue to thrive in its current form, it is important that we begin to put significant effort into planning adaptation on a long-term horizon," the report says.;

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