Event review: 20th Leverhulme lecture

23 November 2017

23 Nov 2017

Clean energy is the topic of the moment in science and technology. We have seen this reflected in policy decisions – last week’s announcement from COP23 for the elimination of coal power is evidence of that. However, a trend continues – many of these alliances focus on preventing further carbon emissions and climate change, rather than reversing the damage that is already done.

Image (L to R): Trevor Rhodes, Geoffrey Maitland, Alan Bayliss and Sharon Todd; Credit: Mike Halliday

These problems were the focus of Prof Geoffrey Maitland’s Leverhulme lecture – Avoiding catastrophic climate change; Paris 2015 set the targets, can the UK deliver? – this year given in Chester. Prof Maitland is the 20th recipient of this prestigious award, which recognises individuals who have made a significant contribution to chemical research.

Prof Maitland is renowned for his career in oil and gas, both in industry and academia. His current research at Imperial College London, where he is a Professor of Energy Engineering, focuses on managing the transition between fossil fuels and renewable energy sources.

Currently, Maitland said, each person living in the UK generates ten tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year, even after the rapid decline since 2014 – prompted by several successful government initiatives – when the UK topped global emissions per individual.

However, there is still a steady increase in global greenhouse gas production. Prof Maitland made note of the fact that, in order to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement, the world needs to be removing CO2 from the atmosphere, not just slowing down our emissions.

The biggest challenge we have ahead of us is the ever-growing global population, Prof Maitland said, and that will be a major drive, influencing how we deal with energy demands.

The distribution is not equal, of course, with the economic expansion of developing countries, meaning that countries such as Brazil, China, and Russia are still depending on fossil fuels. But, Prof Maitland said, ‘We have no right to deny them fossil fuels’, after using them so heavily ourselves.

Nonetheless, Prof Maitland says that the UK is well positioned for a future green economy. The UK is one of the only nations worldwide that has seen carbon emissions decrease since the Paris Agreement, he said, and has dedicated large sums into negative energy technologies research.

One such technology is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), which is used during industrial processes to remove inevitable CO2 emissions. Prof Maitland said that, despite government programmes ­– the UK CCS Commercialisation competition contributed £1bn to research in the area – development is not moving forward.

The reason? The UK does not need CCS technology yet, said Prof Maitland. We are one of the only nations where successive governments have taken the issue of climate change seriously, he said – resulting in decreasing emissions.

But Prof Maitland says that individual contributions can also make an impact, reporting that 40% can be done in the household – we need to start believing that ‘it’s our problem’ for things to really change, he said.

Prof Geoffrey Maitland is Professor of Energy Engineering at Imperial College London and a past President of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (2014–15).

He spent over 20 years in oil and gas with Schulmberger and over 20 years at Imperial, first as a young lecturer from 1974 and then from 2005 in his current post.

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