IEEE’s Plan To Help Combat Climate Change

The IEEE Board of Directors formed an ad hoc committee on climate change in February to coordinate its response to the global threat. The Institute asked the committee’s chair, 2022 IEEE President-Elect Saifur Rahman, about the issues it will be addressing, what role IEEE members can play, and other topics.

Rahman is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech. The IEEE Life Fellow is also founder and chairman of BEM Controls, a software company in McLean, Va., that provides buildings with energy-efficiency solutions.

His answers have been edited for clarity.

Why was the ad hoc committee established?

Rahman: Its charter is to develop a cross-IEEE strategy to synchronize and guide the organization’s response to changes in the global climate. The committee will be the face of IEEE on the global platform dealing with these issues.

IEEE has significant relevant expertise and ongoing efforts that can be brought to bear on this issue. The committee includes experts from all six IEEE organizational units and all 10 IEEE regions. I did this on purpose so that people will have some ownership over this problem. Efforts include the work done by societies such as the IEEE Power & Energy Society, to which I belong; conferences such as the IEEE Sustainable Power and Energy Conference; publications including IEEE Electrification; and technical standards, like IEEE 1547 for connecting distributed energy resources to the grid. This ad hoc committee will serve to better connect and coordinate these efforts.

Why should IEEE be involved in combating climate change?

Rahman: IEEE has a global footprint, with members in 160 countries. With this very broad footprint, we can help to bring together organizations working on various aspects of climate change and possible solutions. IEEE is here to listen to them.

For example, organizations such as the Sierra Club and the World Wildlife Fund aspire to make the world carbon-neutral in 30 to 40 years. There’s nothing wrong with their aspirations. We, as technologists, have a responsibility to point out to them the steps that need to be taken to get there and what the challenges are.

We are not a power company, a government, or a business that has a target to achieve, but a neutral platform. IEEE is highly respected because we don’t have an agenda.

As the world’s largest organization of technical professionals, IEEE has both the opportunity and the responsibility to assist in organizing engineers, scientists, and technical professionals to address the causes, mitigate the impact, and adapt to climate change.

What is the committee working on?

Rahman: We are reaching out to the French Academy of Technologies, Rotary International, UNESCO, U.S. National Academy of Engineering, World Federation of Engineering Organizations, and several environmental organizations to collaborate with them. We are sharing each other’s approaches to tackling the climate change problem, and IEEE is offering the services of its volunteer base to address some of these issues.

Why should members care about climate change? From a practical standpoint, what can they do?

Rahman: Climate change is an existential threat to humanity. It has the potential to change the way we live and threatens the livelihood of hundreds of millions of people including members. The concern about climate change is across all age groups.

IEEE has a responsibility to bring this threat to the attention of our members so that they can in turn educate business leaders, political leaders, and society about its impact and possible solutions.

For example, engineers and technologists can develop technologies and offer best practices for decarbonization. IEEE can also provide resources to its members so they can give talks to local schools about topics such as coal-burning power plants or solar energy. We want to show that members can talk about climate-change topics with people who are not engineers.

What are technologies that you think can affect climate change?

Rahman: When the ad hoc committee met for the first time in January, I identified what I call a six-point plan approach to show that IEEE is thinking about climate change seriously. The technologies are:

  1. Energy efficiency. These include low-cost solutions such as using more efficient light bulbs and lowering the temperature of your air conditioner. If you use less electricity, you will burn less coal. It’s as simple as that.
  2. Battery energy storage. You cannot make wind and solar energy useful throughout the day unless you can store it.
  3. Renewables such as solar, wind, and hydroelectricity. These have some challenges that need to be solved, such as integration into the grid.
  4. Nuclear power. While large-scale nuclear power is still very unpopular, there are new technologies, such as advanced nuclear reactors and small reactors, that could be more acceptable and are not as risky as 1,000-megawatt big nuclear power plants, according to “Small Modular and Advanced Nuclear Reactors: A Reality Check,” published in IEEE Access.
  5. Cross-border power transfer. If countries want to be energy self-sufficient, they may end up putting together a lot of resources that are not very efficient. For example, it’s cheaper for New York state to buy electricity from Canada than to build more power plants.
  6. Carbon sequestration. Coal plants will be running for the next 30 to 40 years, so we must accept that. Our job as engineers is decarbonization, so we need to extract the CO2 released from power plants and hold it somewhere else. Coal-powered plants could also be more acceptable if we could extract soot from them.

Climate change and global warming are universal. You can talk about the topic at any level with anybody, from high school kids to life members. My mission for this ad hoc committee is to create a platform to give members the tools to do that.