Tag Archives: emissions

Slow progress replacing 150 year old infrastructure

Photograph of salvaged section of original gas mainThe Liverpool Gas Light Company was formed in 1816, just as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere started to rise above the pre-industrial revolution level of 278 ppm. A rival Oil Gas Company was formed in 1823 and became the Liverpool New Gas and Coke Company in 1834. The two rival companies merged in 1848. Last year a piece of cast iron gas main from around this period was salvaged while replacing a gas main on the Dock Road in Liverpool. It was date-stamped 1853. For the last month, works have been underway to replace the original gas main in our street which appears to be of a similar age. The concept of gas-fired central heating using pressurised hot water was developed in the 1830s by Angier March Perkins [1838 US patent], amongst others; but did not become fashionable until the 1850s which coincides approximately with laying of the original gas main in the road outside our house. There is a cavernous coal hole under the pavement (sidewalk) in front of our house which would have been used to store coal that was burned in fireplaces in every room. So, we can deduce that the house, which was built in the early 1830s, did not initially have gas-fired central heating but that it could have been installed sometime in the second half of the 19th century, just as the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere started its exponential increase towards today’s level of 412 ppm [monthly average at Mauna Loa Global Monitoring Laboratory for August 2020].  Carbon dioxide represents about 80% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the US EPA, and heating of commercial and residential properties accounts for 12% of these emissions in the US and for 32% in the UK.  Hence, before our house is two hundred years old, it is likely that we will have converted it to electrical heating in order to reduce its carbon footprint.  We have made a start on the process but it is pointless until our power supply is carbon neutral and progress towards carbon neutrality for electricity generation is painfully slow in the UK and elsewhere [see ‘Inconvenient facts‘ on December 18th, 2019].

You can check live carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation and consumption using the ElectricityMap.

Engineers, moral compasses and society

Picture1One of my regular correspondents has commented last week about teaching ethics to engineering undergraduate students in order to reduce the probability of repetition of events similar to the Volkswagen emissions scandal (see my post on October 14th, 2015 on ‘Greed overwhelms ethics‘). My experience of talking to professional engineers is that there is nothing wrong with their ethical values but that they feel helpless in the face of corporate intransigence or worse. Many engineers feel unable to shift the moral compass of the organisation in which they work. Ethics is concerned with one’s personal values whereas morality is about what is permissible and forbidden in particular realms of behaviour, according to AC Grayling. The frequent revelations of scandals across a range of industries would suggest that we have a crisis of morality in our society. I don’t know how to resolve it but perhaps a first step would be for everyone, including the rich and powerful, to admit we have a problem.

Greed overwhelms ethics

My car but not my house!

My car but not my house!

The scandal about Volkswagen emissions has already caused journalists and others to wring their hands or to preach sermons, or both, about the ethical standards of the engineering profession, see for example the Editor’s blog in Professional Engineer where he reminds us that professional engineers should conduct their professional work and relationships with “integrity and objectivity and with due regard for the welfare of the people, the organisations and the environment with which they interact”. The quotation is from the Royal Charter of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Fine words written to induce good intentions that rarely survive in the face of greed or simply the need to keep your job so that you can feed and house your family.

In my view, the emissions scandal seems to have parallels with the banking scandals of the past decade, in which corporate greed has trampled over ethics and morals in the pursuit of ever larger profits while government regulators through incompetence or acquiescence have allowed it to continue. Volkswagen were wrong to design a device to cheat the Government emission tests, but Government regulators were naive to design a test in which it was so easy to cheat. Senior executives at Volkswagen have blamed their employees following other recent examples.  These company leaders were paid gigantic salaries to provide both leadership and management and, in my opinion, they have failed in both by blaming the people they are supposed to be leading and by allowing the scandals to happen in the first place.

The evidence would suggest that we can trust neither corporations nor governments to take care of the environment. One solution is for all vehicles to provide real-time information on the dashboard about NOX and Carbon emissions as well fuel consumption then we can make our own choices. When I moved to the US more than a decade ago, I was surprised to find that fuel consumption data was not available on the dashboard of most cars as it was already commonplace in Europe. Perhaps its presence was a factor in the development of fuel efficient cars in Europe although clearly higher fuel prices play a large role.  However, in the absence of a tax on emissions, real-time emission data on the dashboard would motivate engineering ingenuity to compete to produce lower emission designs instead of wasting creativity on cheating in useless Government tests.

Here are some of facts to support my statements above about large profits and gigantic salaries:

Volkswagen profits rose 21% in 2014 to more than $12billion on an annual turnover of $230 billion which is comparable to the GDP of Portugal.

The CEO of Volkswagen was paid almost $18million per year which is about 250 times the average salary of a Volkswagen engineer.

Sources:

Hibbert, L., Editor’s comment: October 2015 The Volkswagen emissions testing scandal has put the issue of professional ethics in the spotlight, Professional Engineer, October 07, 2015.

Wall Street Journal, Feb 27th, 2015

Volkswagen AG Annual Report 2014

World Bank Data Bank

Reuters, March 12th, 2012

glassdoor.com