The deadliest deadline

01 February 2008

Sometimes we need an approaching deadline to galvanise us into action. But there isn’t a natural deadline for reducing carbon emissions to a sustainable level. Mitsubishi’s Energy Spokesman, Jeff Whiting contemplates manufacturing one.

Jeff Whiting
Jeff Whiting

Every few years, a massive public deadline looms up and it’s all hands to the pump to meet it. Afterwards everybody relaxes and promises to be better prepared next time – but they rarely keep that promise.

A recent example was the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. The city had eight years to prepare, but with seven of them ticked away there was still a gargantuan amount of work to do. The result was a frenzy of activities and sleepless nights for Olympic officials, city fathers, and many many others with a stake in the event.

And as the seconds of the eleventh hour slipped off, frenzy rose to pandemonium. But it all came good in the end; a brilliant opening ceremony was followed by a hugely successful Games.

There was a similar reaction a few years earlier with the so-called Millennium Bug. It is tempting to look back with the comfort of hindsight and laugh at the naivety of people thinking that computers that could click over from seven to eight and from eight to nine, would not be able to manage the step from nine to zero.

But with a bit less bravado we can recall what actually happened. The idea of the Millennium Bug arose slowly; at first a lot of people derided it, but gradually more and more people came around to the idea. Their thinking ran along the lines of: ‘If there is such a bug, I’m going to be very sorry when I go into the office on 2 January and find all my company’s data lost forever. Perhaps I had better invest in some precautions just in case.’

Big companies like Mitsubishi have to start early on such projects, so we had work in hand from about 1996. We met the deadline, and watched the preparations of companies upstream and downstream from us in the supply chain. Most other big companies followed similar schedules, although a good few had only the tiniest margin of safety. Smaller companies started their work later, and most met the deadline – many hitting the Athenian frenzy/pandemonium interface!

The fact that the Bug didn’t materialise is irrelevant. The point is that companies and other computer users left it until the last minute to get ready, even though the consequences could have been terrible.

We see similar behaviour at an individual level. Nearly every one is slow to renew their passport, write a difficult report or visit their mother-in-law. It seems to be a natural part of the human condition to avoid doing things we don’t want to do, especially if there is something more attractive to distract us.

History is littered with incidents of issues being ignored followed, by fevered last minute preparations. And when things are left until just too late, events can develop a disastrously unstoppable momentum.

Scientists have been aware of the problem of rising temperatures for at least 30 years, and have been pumping out the message hard and fast. (Personally I recall first equating the idea of a finite planet with pictures of Earth taken from one of the Apollo moon shots, probably nearer to 35 years ago.) But the concept didn’t really enter the public conscious until far more recently – perhaps around 1997 - and it was a few more years yet before people really started reacting.

Progress to counter carbon production has been made and continues to be made. But the question has to be: ‘Will enough be done in time, or will it be too little too late?’

If we were building an Olympic village, we’d have a final deadline to work towards and as long as we hit that we could claim success. But global warming doesn’t work like that: instead of a deadline we have a creeping cancer.

The EU has put in place many directives on climate change and energy efficiency. These define the beginnings of the way we need to shape future global manufacturing as we develop a low carbon economy. Quite simply the UK needs to meet these directives - preferably ahead of schedule – if we are to maintain our global competitiveness and avoid carbon penalties. Failing to comply will ultimately deal us a body blow in which we have to pay massive premiums for excessive carbon use, which will price us out of world market including our own domestic one.

Changes right now, even small ones, will begin to put us on the right path and help secure our national manufacturing future.

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