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Risky business: preparing for climate change

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The future effects of global warming are well known. In coming years, the world will experience higher average temperatures, causing ice to melt, sea levels to rise and an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events. Taking action is imperative. And it poses many challenges for business and government.

“To achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and limit global warming to well below two degrees centigrade, we need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than six per cent each year to reach net-zero emissions by 2050,” says Curtin chemical engineering graduate and technical director of engeco, Marc Allen.

“We need to roll out current low carbon technology around the world, while working on new technologies to accelerate decarbonisation and achieve negative emissions. Businesses have an important a part to play in limiting global warming but often don’t know how to start – that’s why I founded engeco.”

Allen’s Singapore-based consultancy helps businesses around the world lower their emissions. They also advise companies on reducing their exposure to climate change risk.

“Companies don’t deal well with disruptive changes like global warming. There’s a huge appetite for guidance and strategy on the potential business risks that come with climate change.”

Some of these risks are obvious, like changing weather patterns and coastlines threatening a company’s operations and assets, for example.

Other risks are more subtle, but just as important.

Taking on potentially environmentally damaging projects is becoming riskier. Getting financial backing may be difficult, there may be boycotts and public backlash if they don’t honour their environmental responsibilities, and their brand and reputation may be heavily impacted.

Given this, it’s unsurprising that some companies are now acting fast on lowering their emissions.

For example, large companies such as BHP and Rio Tinto have been rolling out automated trucks and equipment. Automation creates a safer workplace and more efficient operations, which is a win for the environment.

Smaller mining companies have been starting to use big data analyses to optimise whole-of-enterprise operations, which also reduces emissions. Other companies are switching to electric vehicle fleets and solar diesel hybrid power plants to reduce costs and environmental impact.

But many lag behind. Prioritising sustainability over fast growth is a challenge is for governments and businesses around the world. A company may decide to invest in rapid but polluting production increases over environmentally friendly, longer-term ventures. Governments have similar competing priorities with environmental strategy often tied to short-term election cycles.

“Our economy is built on generating emissions with very few drawbacks. When these emissions start to have consequences and a price tag attached, it upsets the way businesses and governments are run, and they can be reluctant to change.”

Marc Allen standing in front of a presentation at an emissions reduction workshop
Allen presents a emissions reduction workshop

However, Allen sees reasons for hope on the horizon. He predicts the current surge in climate change action may move the needle on political action. Millions of people around the world participated in the September 2019 climate strikes, and a survey by the Lowy Institute found that climate change topped the list of Australians’ perceived threats to national interests, ahead of cyberattacks, international terrorism and North Korea’s nuclear program.

Allen also points to the speed in which sustainable technologies are being developed, and crucially, reducing in price.

“Renewable energy and battery technology are very quickly reaching a tipping point. In the not too distant future, building new renewable energy generation and storage will be cheaper than running existing coal and gas power stations – this is game changing for low carbon energy penetration.”

“Other clean fuel options like hydrogen present a way towards deep decarbonisation and a very real economic opportunity for a country like Australia.”

In fact, it was hydrogen fuel that first opened Allen’s eyes to the area of sustainability. Earlier in his career, Allen managed operations at a hydrogen plant that supplied fuel to hydrogen trial buses in Perth. This experience showed him how crucial engineering skills are to a net-zero carbon future.

Allen’s chemical engineering degree taught him problem solving skills he now uses everyday – despite the fact he’s not working as a traditional engineer.

“It’s helpful to understand how chemical processes work. The building blocks of climate change are quite technical, and my chemical engineering degree provided an excellent base to build on. Later, I was able to pick up skills in policy and risk assessment, which led to designing corporate strategy.”

There are plenty of opportunities working in climate change for future graduates and Allen encourages engineers to make a real impact on the future of the planet.

“Clean, sustainable growth is the only viable growth story for companies in the 21st century, and we need capable people to lead the way.”

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