PARIS — On EE Times, we often report on EVs and hybrids, Energy Star-approved home appliances, and a host of greener chips designed to lower power consumption for everything from mobile devices to stationary systems.
Of course, as much as these greener technologies make us all feel good about ourselves (exactly how their marketers want us to feel), many astute members of the EE Times Community can't help but see a few brown spots on the green theories. Not using gas doesn't necessarily reduce an EV's total carbon footprint. Think about what it takes to generate the electricity that feeds it. Without a greener electric grid, it's hard for EVs to reap benefits.
Last summer, for example, Climate Central reported that 18 states, including Colorado, Missouri, New Mexico, Michigan, and Ohio, still heavily depend on coal or have virtually no renewables and little nuclear power in their electricity mixes. "Driving and recharging an electric car in these states is worse for the climate than burning gasoline in a conventional hybrid or high-mileage car... even when manufacturing emissions are excluded." In Colorado, for example, a Toyota Prius hybrid is more environmentally conscientious than a Nissan Leaf or Tesla S.
Does that mean the engineering community's efforts to develop and advance EV technologies don't accomplish much more than helping marketers sell more EVs? The most cynical view is that EVs are for consumers who want to make a statement about their green consciousness. But this morning, I came across a Worldwatch Institute report, "State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?" The institute said in a press release on the report:
Many environmentalists today miss the broader political picture by advocating for small day-to-day "green living" acts that in reality are far more symbolic than they are effective. The truth is that most people are proponents of a cleaner environment, safer products and labor conditions, and a better functioning democracy -- they are just not actively working together for real change.
This argument is not exactly music to liberal ears, but it's in line with what some of the EE Times readers have been saying for years. The conclusions of the Worldwatch Institute differ markedly from the often apolitical statements of the engineering community. "The missing ingredient is not more individual eco-perfectionists, but rather collective engagement for sweeping political and economic change," the release said.
In my years at EE Times, I've often heard my elders (and now my youngers) advise me, "Leave politics out of engineering." This is a publication for informing the engineering community, not for political discourse. And yet I've always believed that, if we really want engineers to matter to society, engineers can't pretend to live in a world without politics.
"Small actions are a fine place to start, but they are a terrible place to stop," Annie Leonard, a contributing author to the report and co-director of The Story of Stuff, said in the release.
Framing environmental deterioration as the result of poor individual choices -- littering, leaving the lights on when we leave a room, failing to carpool -- not only distracts us from identifying and demanding change from the real drivers of environmental decline. It also removes these issues from the political realm to the personal, implying that the solution is in our individual choices rather than in better policies, business practices, and structural context.
I understand that engineers, generally speaking, remain squeamish about politics and are reluctant to get involved in any sort of activism. But here's the thing: When we all know how high the stakes are and how slow the global response has been, isn't it time for the engineering community -- whose most important tasks include developing technologies to lower carbon emission -- to take a stand and speak up?
I'm not sure if the engineering community could ever work up the enthusiasm for even a mini-March on Washington. But I think it's high time for the world to hear the cool, objective voice of the engineer in arguments about clean air, clean water, and climate.
Of course, if you're one of those engineers who believe climate change is a hoax, let's hear from you, too -- with a little proof.
— Junko Yoshida, Chief International Correspondent, EE Times