Chemeca 2019 – Part 1. Complex Problems and Unintended Consequences

Josh, Greig and Tony swanned across to Sydney recently for the 2019 Chemeca conference for chemical engineers.  The 120+ conference attendees came from Australia, New Zealand and beyond, with roughly a 4 : 1 ratio of academic people to industry folk like us.

As with any good conference there was way too much great material to give justice to in a humble blog post, but for what it’s worth we thought we would share a few of the items that particularly caught our attention.

But even that was too much for just one post, so we’re splitting it over three instead.

Part 1 – Complex Problems and Unintended Consequences

Early in the conference IChemE President Ken Rivers talked about the dangers of oversimplifying complex problems, and the need to think about systems holistically to get a proper understanding.  If you implement a simple solution to a complex problem there is a good chance you may end up with unintended consequences that are worse than the problem you began with.

On the opening day of the CHEMECA conference The Independent reported on a rather significant unintended consequence of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) tightening up the sulphur emission limits for ships in international waters.  Rather than switch to low sulphur fuels, as the IMO intended, 3,733 ships so far have been fitted with open loop scrubbers to effectively redirect their contaminants into seawater and allow them to meet the new limits while still burning high sulphur fuel.

Environmental groups are of course declaring that this will be a complete disaster for ocean life, while the shipping industry argues that open loop scrubbers comply with IMO rules and will not be detrimental to the environment.  As usual the truth is probably somewhere in between, but at any rate, we’re confident this was not the end result the IMO were aiming for when they decided to pull on that particular lever.

Consultant Andrew Perry also emphasised the importance of considering the whole system in his talk on the Challenges of Tackling Australia’s Carbon Emission Footprint.  Australia has the highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita of all Western industrialised nations, at 22 tCO2e/y.  Australia could reduce this figure by closing certain carbon intensive industries, like what happened in the United Kingdom with the Port Talbot Steel Works in Wales in 2015.  That closure reduced the UK’s reported emissions by 2.3 million tCO2e/y but of course the steel manufacturing just moved overseas resulting in no overall improvement from an overall global system point of view.

In his fascinating book The Carbon Collision Course, Perry points out that if we want to really reduce emissions, sometimes the only way to do it is to leave the raw materials in the ground.  In many cases that may not be politically or economically appealing, which presents some serious challenges for the years ahead.

Perry also talks in his book about another classic example of unintended consequences.  In 2008 a carbon-credit scheme was introduced to reward companies for destroying the powerful greenhouse gases trifluoromethane (HFC-23) and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6).  Unfortunately this created a perverse incentive for manufacturers of these gases to ramp up production so they had extra left over that they could then destroy and claim a reward for.  Talk about a Dilbert moment…

Continue to Chemeca 2019 – Part 2. Complex Solutions for Simple Elements