Rio+20: "The end of the future"
The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, warned at the beginning of this week's Earth Summit in Rio, "if we really do not take firm actions [on climate change], we may be heading towards the end - the end of our future".
It shouldn't surprise us that hundreds of bigwigs and politicians from around the world cannot agree on anything. Radical change doesn't happen through consensus, it happens through a few informed very smart people deciding to do something different.
So there is hope for humanity. And it's here and now, you and me, in this city.
The value of a few smart people doing the something different:
The new chem and chem eng labs ar Aston University were officially opened last Monday by Professor Sir Harry Kroko, Nobel laureate, he of carbon-60 buckminsterfullerene discovery, i.e. the very foundation of nanotechnology.
Lots of Birmingham youngsters can now personally vouch that he's a witty, hugely informative polymath -- and that his discovery was the seeming happenchance of a few young very smart guys working speculatively.
Harry Kroto's work shook our understanding of How The World Really Works and has already led to revolutions in fields as diverse as materials technology, medicine and cosmology.
Am I putting forward the notion that scientists and technologists will ride to our rescue, that Ban Ki-Moon's fears will thereby not happen?
It's our only hope.
The challenge for us is getting to grips with how rare but revolutionary scientific breakthroughs can enable us to build technologies that will make our world a better place for our children.
And for the here and now, you and me, here in this city -- it's putting in place technologies developed by Aston's ChemEng guys listening to Harry Kroto earlier this week:
I've written before about the potential of Birmingham -- and other cities -- having a distributed energy supply system. Professor Andreas Hornung and his colleagues are already building, literally building, the beginnings of such a system.
The EBRI (European Bioenergy Research Institute) is more than research in a ChemEng lab. It's also a demonstrator power plant rising between the Guild of Students and the Sack of Potatoes pub in Gosta Green.
Demonstrator? There's one already in operation at Harper Adams University College.
There's the opportunity, too, of building an "thermal ring" of perhaps a dozen of them around the city to supply a significant proportion of our energy requirement.
This process will divert the waste the million of us produce from landfill and the like into heat, electricity, hydrogen (for fuel cells) and biochar (which dug into some soils will bind with nitrates and phosphates thereby reducing the requirement for fertilisers).
It's not just about the jobs that this technology could generate for the city as reported here.
Nor is it just about making a significant contribution to us meeting short-term energy needs; i.e. keeping the lights on over the next decade or two.
It's about how we put in place an carbon-neutral energy system (or, in this instance, carbon-negative energy system) that our descendants and their societies can rely upon.
Nationally, we'll still need big power plants, at least for some time yet. A distributed system, however, works to our advantage.
Birmingham doesn't have its own power source. We import all but a zillionth of our energy requirements. Imagine a local supply.
Imagine a local energy supply if, no when there are national outages.
You can't build a stonking great power station, nuclear or not, in a conurbation. But you can build a distributed energy generation system.
We have post-industrial, derelict or semi derelict sites aplenty. We have the detritus of a million people, 3.7M or so in the conurbation as a whole. Both considered problems to be solved; both resources in this game of energy generation.
It doesn't take massive investment either. The plant on Aston's campus is £16.5M-worth of investment, a price that will plummet rapidly. Already one of the Aston power energy generation systems comes in at a mere £1.5M, the price of a posh house in the city or a banker's bonus in London -- and within the reach of every community here.
As importantly, a distributed system is highly flexible. If one or several parts of the system fail, the rest remains in operation. (Think of the economic impact of single-source disaster such as Fukushima across the whole of Japan, let alone the local tragedies.)
What's proposed here is not just a biofuel revolution, such as that at Aston University. As we learned at the Science Capital meeting here in Birmingham on 13th June, it's about distributed energy from a wide range of sources -- wind, solar, water, tide . . .
Local physicist now entrepreneur Graham Hygate of Fine Energy supplies wind turbines to farmers and small communities. And there's the University of Birmingham's hydrogen fuel cell technology runs cars and boats.
Aston VC Professor (now Dame) Julia King began her 2009 Boulton and Watt Commemoration Lecture by quoting Matthew Boulton: "I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have, POWER".