Opinion: Guilty conscience from a world on fire
The world is on fire and my field of study is largely responsible.
I was always really passionate about applied math and chemistry and naturally chemical engineering felt like the only possible career. Now as I am about to graduate, the headlines of California forest fires and climate refugees in third-world nations helped me realize a sad truth. There is little to dispute that the industrial revolution was a major cause for rising global temperatures from a boom in carbon dioxide emissions. Nations were finally able to meet demands for all sorts of commodities and necessities. Much of this came from advancements in chemical engineering where the field focuses on up-scaling chemical processes to make valuable products. These engineers improved the quality of life for millions.
Fast forward to today and that quality of life has come at the expense of the environment. Watching the world burn should strike some guilt into current and future chemical engineers as I definitely feel some secondhand guilt. Every unit operation and process we study is always going to have undesired by-products and in some of the largest scales, that by-product is carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses. In a broader sense, the field of chemical engineering is a literal study of creating pollution and waste while providing highly demanded goods on large scales. The chemical transformations we try to up-scale and industrialize can directly be linked to those California forest fires. Of course there have been advancements in more efficient technologies and better environmental standards but I can’t help to think that I’m going to be part of the problem.
The interesting part of all this is that one can argue that chemical engineers are in the best position to reverse climate change. After all, we do have the tools and capacity to put our efforts into renewables and eco-friendly technologies. But that’s the problem. We don’t do that. Companies that are built by us don’t do that. You may have heard of a small company by the name of ExxonMobil, a company with thousands of chemical engineers. In 2018, they made $21 billion in earnings with $279 billion in total revenue. This amounted to 3.8 million barrels of oil and gas production per day and 5.5 million barrels of petroleum products per day.
This makes them a world-leader in the oil and gas market. Almost all of their products come from classical reforming and separation techniques with only slight improvements to reducing waste over the last 100 years. With all this power and money, you would expect them to make large attempts in renewable technologies. Unsurprisingly, no. We should give them a little credit for their algae biofuels program. Algae can produce oil with little to no emissions and Exxon aims to produce 10,000 barrels by 2025
They are currently nowhere near this number and when comparing it to the amount of oil they produce, it’s laughable. The program is still in its early research phases but that doesn’t stop it from being the star of every ExxonMobil commercial. The sole reason why Exxon doesn’t feel the need to invest more in renewables is because of the current oil and gas demands. They have no real reason to mitigate their oil production if people keep using energy that comes from those sources. In their 2017 sustainability report, Exxon claims that they will let “market prices drive solutions”
In other words, if they can still make billions of dollars from oil, they have no incentive to put that money into renewables. If the largest oil company in the world is driven solely by capitalistic opportunities and refuses to be a leader in renewables, then what can we expect from everyone else. I am aware that there is a lot of politics that goes into this but I won’t go down that path. Frankly, I don’t know enough about policy to speak on those issues.
I feel like the only thing that ordinary people can do is reduce their energy consumption, especially those in first-world countries. That is much easier said than done. I can’t act like I have been taking major steps in reducing my own carbon footprint. I am excited to move on from college with my degree in a field that I generally love. Chemical engineering has given the world so much but at a very high cost. Our world is on fire and my guilty conscience knows that we helped create arguably the largest global issue.
Shuja Abbas is a senior at the university studying chemical engineering and is also a Munson Fellow within the Honors Program. His views are his own and do not reflect the views of the majority of The Review’s staff. He may be reached at Shujaaaa@udel.edu.