What lessons can we learn from the campaign to remove lead from petrol that can be applied to fighting climate change? Matthew Tendam, Environmental Engineer at Aurecon, addressed this issue at Engineers Australia’s Climate Smart Engineering (CSE23) conference this week. Read the edited transcript of his presentation below.
Everyone cares about the environment until it’s time to pay for it.
I’m going to use some analogies from the battle to get lead out of petrol — or gasoline as we call it in the US where I’m from — and draw on some of those lessons learned, and conduct a bit of a philosophical discussion into how we as engineers and scientists can really put the environment at the centre of every engineering and construction project.
Clair Cameron Patterson was an American geochemist who did most of his work in the 1950s and 60s at the California Institute of Technology. He pioneered many things that we use today, such as mass spectrometry and clean rooms.
Early in his career, he used technology to work out the age of the Earth. At the time he used the uranium lead dating method, which looks at the rate at which uranium decays to lead over geological time; you can look at the ratios of the isotopes and work out how old things are. It was very imprecise with a lot of room for error.
Patterson worked on a way to look at uranium lead dating processes where you look at how different isotopes of lead decay down. That’s a more precise and accurate way to measure geologic time.
Patterson travelled the world collecting samples from soil, mountaintops, oceans, rivers, lakes, everywhere, resulting in a massively robust data set. When he looked at the data from the ocean in particular, he realised that the upper layers of the ocean had much higher concentrations of lead than in the lower layers of the ocean, which really didn’t make a lot of sense.
At best, it should have been relatively equilibrated, and not the order of magnitude difference that he was seeing. He quickly realised that this was from the use of leaded fuel and the emissions going into the atmosphere. Lead doesn’t break down and doesn’t decay. It’s a metal, a base element. So it would get deposited throughout the world.
Based on this information, Patterson decided he would sue General Motors Corporation, which was one of the biggest automobile manufacturers at the time, and it still is. So General Motors also hired their own expert, Robert Kehoe, who was a toxicologist and pathologist at the time. His message was that the presence of lead in humans and other organisms was normal and that exposure to low lead levels was not harmful.
This led to a decades-long, epic battle trying to get lead out of fuel. And I’m going to draw on some of these analogies on how we again as engineers and scientists can put sustainability and the environment at the centre of everything that we do.
Costs of remediation
I’m an environmental engineer. A lot of people ask me what environmental engineers do. Well, there’s a variety of different things that we can do but I focus on anthropogenic contamination in the environment, looking at soil, groundwater, surface water and assessing those problems.
I often joke that we clean up the messes that other engineers make. Often it’s a very thankless job and it costs money off the bottom line for our clients, which is also not usually very much appreciated.
So I look at remediating these problems, and that has a very large carbon footprint. Once chemicals get in the environment, it’s very expensive and difficult to get them out of the environment.
We often talk about the carbon footprint of the remediation, but we don’t often talk about the assessment component of that, where you collect hundreds of samples, then the client goes from one consultant to another because they didn’t like the answer or they want to save a little money. So we need to also, at least in my industry, look at sustainable assessment and remediation, and try to streamline that assessment process.
On the converse, looking at other engineering problems, often we jump to solutions as quickly as we possibly can. We go from A to B to C to D to get to that answer. But staying in the problem is usually where we find the most innovative answers to these problems and not just jumping to the business-as-usual answer.
Diversity of thought
So we need to start looking at really staying in the problem and bringing diverse cohorts of people together so that they can solve some of these really difficult and wicked problems that we’re facing.
We need a seat at the table. If you’re like me, sometimes when you get a request for a proposal, tender or brief, half the solution is worked out. A client is hiring you to implement the solution that we’ve already decided on. Just do it in this timeframe and for this amount of money. Innovation is great just as long as it costs anything or doesn’t change what we’ve already decided.
Doing what you’re told
Usually engineers are told what to do, and we go about and do it. And if we won’t do it, then somebody else will; another consulting firm will go in and solve the problem.
This goes directly back to Patterson, who tried to get a seat at the table. He tried to join the National Institute of Health in the United States, the National Science Academy and other federal regulatory bodies, and he was shut out. Nobody wanted to hear what he had to say, because he was challenging the status quo in a major way.
We, as technical people, need to have a seat at the table and need to really challenge ourselves to be part of the political debate. Run for office, run for local council. We need technical people — not just lawyers and businesspeople — running the government.
We need to have advisors to ministers because we need to influence these holistic solutions and sustainable solutions. Often politicians just want to cut a big red ribbon and say, “Look what I’ve done for my constituents”, where they’ve upgraded a kilometre stretch of road, but by the time the road’s built the traffic’s just as bad as it was, or worse than before.
We need to start looking at precinct-level and holistic solutions.
Diverse, inclusive and T-shaped workforce
We hear a lot about gender balance in engineering. There are a lot of aspects to diversity including age, neurodiversity, disability, sexual identity and gender identity. All of these things work into the people that are within your organisation and within your problem-solving team.
Inclusivity is creating psychologically safe spaces to allow this diverse cohort to work out problems, hash it out and bring different perspectives and ways to solve problems that would regularly be on the table.
If you had a team of eight people that all have the same background and perspective, how would you ever expect innovation to happen? Innovation happens in those uncomfortable spaces where we’re really operating at the edges of our expertise, and we’ve got people challenging our thoughts and the ways that we have approached these problems in the past.
The T-shaped workforce is having a depth of expertise in your particular area, but also a breadth across other disciplines so that you know how multidisciplinary solutions can be implemented and how they all can work together and not just focus on one aspect of what you do best, but instead of what everybody does best.
We hear about collaboration a lot. I had the privilege of attending a research expo at Macquarie University a few weeks ago and there was a lot of talk about how academia, industry and government still need to collaborate quite well in bringing inventions to innovation. Industry needs to be involved in academia to commercialise these ideas before they get too far into research.
Collaboration between consultants, construction contractors, and government and policy, is often still an adversarial process. We must bring everybody to the table, coming to the best solutions and breaking down the barriers that have precluded these solutions in the past.
Economics of supply and demand
Here’s a quick overview of 20th century economics: there’s limited resources and we have unlimited wants. Notice that it’s not ‘needs’ but ‘wants’. The rational economic person knows the price of everything and will work in their own self interest. And GDP must always be growing, growing, growing — but we have limited resources.
If you look at these three aspects of our economic principles, they really don’t make sense at all. How can we grow forever when we use five times the Earth’s resources in one year? I have heard some say capitalism is going to save us and I vehemently disagree with that.
Einstein, a pretty smart fella, said, “You can’t solve a problem with the same mindset that created it”. The idea of infinite growth is really not going to help us too much.
The stakeholder capitalism model was developed by Klaus Schwab and the World Economic Fund (WEF). It was developed by a bunch of billionaires in Davos sitting around — so you have to take a bit of grain of salt with this — but it puts the planet, people and prosperity at the centre of everything that we do. This follows on with corporate social responsibility that we see in the market today.
But certainly we have a long way to go. And there’s a lot of greenwashing that we see and a lot of creative accounting where some companies say they are putting the planet, people and prosperity at the centre when they’re really just putting profit and a small number of shareholders at the centre.
Donut economics, which was developed by Kate Raworth at Oxford University, essentially shows the ways to provide for human needs based on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, while living within our planetary boundaries, recognising that we live on a planet with finite resources.
We can’t keep extracting and using resources over and over again. She’s broken this down to the 11 or 12 different aspects that make for a healthy lifestyle, but also how we live within those planetary boundaries that we have. This will take radical transformation and a complete paradigm shift in every way that we operate, but that’s what we need — and we need it now.
We’re also overshooting in climate change, ozone depletion and chemical pollution, and not providing for society.
Degrowth isn’t really about tearing buildings down and ripping up cities, but really it is about consuming less.
Looking at ideas such as decentralisation of services, local power production, home based food production and designing out planned obsolescence — all of our electronics are planned to stop working, or there’s three generations of electronics already developed so you never have the newest best thing. All of those ideas go into degrowth.
Essentially it puts our lifestyles and Joie de Vivre at the centre of our adult lives and not just profits for corporations.
Back to Patterson
Patterson was successful in 1999 in the United States to get lead out of fuel forever. The last drop of leaded fuel was actually used in 2021 in Algeria, which is really hard to believe.
So he didn’t get to see the very end of his decades-long battle, but he did see it end in the United States. And he did work out that the age of the earth is 4.55 billion years old, plus or minus 50 million years, which is the number that we still use today. This margin of error, if you think about it, is 250 times as long as humans have existed on this planet, and 250,000 times as long as our industrial history and look at the impact that we’ve had.
It’s going to take each and every one of us to change our behaviours, change our consumption patterns, and change how we live our lives, if we’re really going to battle with these really wicked problems that we have today.
Engineers Australia acknowledges the support of the Victorian State Government and Melbourne Convention Bureau in helping make this event happen.