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Future Perfect: An Engineering Agenda for a Sustainable Society

Nov 15 2007 10:47
Avalon de Paravicini
Livic has it's reporters everywhere, this month one reported from the Joint ICE and RIBA Annual Lecture.

Sustainability: It?s probably one of the most used ?buzz? phrases right now, along with emissions trading, carbon offsetting, green, global warming, ozone depletion, ecological; you get the picture. The press and the consumer have woken up and realised that destruction of the earth and its resources is not quite so hot any more, unless you count global warming. So it?s fitting that this year?s Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) have invited former ICE president (of 2001-2002), Mark Whitby, to deliver the joint annual RIBA and ICE lecture on the issue.

Whitby is, for those who haven?t already guessed, the founder and director of the engineering firm, Whitbybird, who have recently merged with the Danish firm Ramboll.

The lecture was given at the RIBA building and had a fair turn out of both engineers and architects. Whitby after being introduced, whips straight into the issue of the concept of the ?perfect society?, and the varying degrees to which other ?imperfect societies? (comparing Britain and Denmark, for example) had tried to emulate this. He quotes Denmark as it is a good example of a country who ?has tried to do something?, presently recycling roughly 35% of its waste and having approximately 35% of its energy coming from renewable resources. He then challenges that the notion that the British public generally think it ?wrong? to incinerate waste for energy; something the Danes have been doing with the remainder of their waste that isn?t recycled. Let?s not even go into wind turbine arguments and opinions in the UK that the Danes have challenged and got on with for quite a while.

Essentially he emphasises the point that whilst the British strategy is generally of the ?Let us wait until someone has come up with a perfect solution and then try to do something? school of thought, in Denmark since the 1980s, they simply take smaller steps that may not be perfect but are better than doing nothing.

A similar analogy he quotes is the incandescent light-bulb versus the energy efficient light-bulb. He quickly calculates the amount of carbon emitted during the lifetime of each bulb and then works out that approximately 300 kg of CO2 could be saved from being emitted had we swapped one light-bulb.

The main point and message of the lecture is fundamentally that the perfect society relies on small rational actions by individuals; i.e. each person taking it upon themselves to make small adjustments for the greater good of society. However he also points out that in calculating the value of alternatives, a holistic view must be taken, stating that a recent Royal Academy of Engineers? report managed to omit costs such as transportation and disposal of uranium into the life cycle of a nuclear power plant, thus rendering the very low carbon-cost figure of nuclear power as practically useless.

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