Back to Glasgow, where it all began

World leaders must also take a walk, and undo the global crisis set off by the invention of the steam engine


In 1763, Scottish inventor James Watt was given a steam engine to repair. Developed by Thomas Newcomen, it would turn water into steam to run a water pump. The Newcomen pump used the same chamber for heating and cooling steam, and was slow and consumed lots of coal. It was expensive.

Dagogo Altraid in his book New Thinking: From Einstein to Artificial Intelligence, the Science and Technology That Transformed Our World tells us that Mr Watt conceptualised an improvement during a Sunday afternoon walk in Glasgow. He proposed a separate chamber that would condense the steam. It would improve efficiency and reduce cost.

Subsequently his steam-run piston connected to levers and cogs would move wheels in locomotives, ships and textile factories. James Watt took a walk, and the world changed forever -- the first industrial revolution was set in motion.

About eighty years later the mass extraction, processing and commercial use of petroleum to fuel these engines began in the United States. The second industrial revolution was on its way. The availability of petroleum products helped develop the internal combustion engine, improving mobility on a far greater scale than steam power – later revolutionising the use of automobiles, ships and aircraft.

Energy generated from coal, petroleum, diesel and gas thus industrialised the West, and became the prime mover of its socio-economic system, and subsequently spread to every country in the world which followed the same development path.

Human beings had unprecedented mobility, the world achieved progress, but use of fossil fuels over the next two centuries and half accumulated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increasing its concentration from less than 300 parts per million (ppm) in the pre-industrial era to 418 ppm today. This and other greenhouse gases trapped more heat and amplified anthropogenic climate change.

In the early 19th century scientists were already examining the relation between the sun, earth and atmosphere. French physicist Joseph Fournier in the 1820s postulated that the Earth's atmosphere might face a ‘greenhouse effect’. British physicist John Tyndal later explored this idea further, and in 1859 demonstrated that a greenhouse effect would trap the sun’s reflected radiation in the earth’s atmosphere – increasing the average surface temperature of the planet.

The First World Climate Conference organised by the World Meteorological Organisation in 1979 had formally identified increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases as the leading cause of global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) established in 1988 to study climate change and its impact has been warning for the past three decades that a hotter planet posed a threat to humans and other life forms.

It has been known for decades that a warming earth will disturb the water cycle resulting in frequent heavy precipitation, floods, and drought, cyclonic storms, and coastal inundation. Heat waves and forest fires would be more devastating. In fact, the IPCC’s Assessment Report 6 (AR6) issued in August 2021 reported that from 2011-2020 the global surface temperature was already ~1.1oC higher than the baseline of 1850-1900.

The Paris Accord of 2015 aimed to limit average temperature rise from 1.5 to 2 oC  warmer compared to pre-industrial levels to minimise the risk of a planetary climate disaster. Member countries agreed to work on Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that would set their own targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by cutting coal and petroleum use.

Even these pledges will not meet the 1.5 to 2oC Paris target, warned the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in a synthesis report on NDCs. In fact, at the current rate of emission reduction, global average temperature is unlikely to be limited to 2oC increase by 2050. The report warned that national emission reductions pledged in the NDCs should increase by an additional 80% if the target is to be met.

If the current level of emission continues, by 2100 the world will be at least 2.7oC warmer. Earlier, the IPCC had predicted that the 1.5C threshold would actually be exceeded in 2040. Sadly, institutional barriers, path dependencies, lack of actions, and denying of climate change science in developed countries act as barriers to faster decarbonisation.

For Nepal, as elsewhere in the world, the loss and damage from the climate emergency is already a part of daily life. Droughts leading to unprecedented wildfires, record-breaking rainfall, extreme weather eventsreceding snowlines, shrinking glaciers, and springs going dry. In Glasgow, world leaders have to commit to drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and pledge help to countries like Nepal to cope with the climate crisis.

It is indeed symbolic that the UN’ Climate Change summit (called COP26) in November is being held in Glasgow, the same city where James Watt took a walk during which he came up with the idea that made more efficient coal fired steam engine 258 years ago. Perhaps world leaders should also take a walk while in Glasgow to come up with an urgent plan to undo the planetary crisis unleashed by Watt’s steam engine. Time has run out.

Ajaya Dixit is Senior Advisor of Kathmandu based ISET-Nepal. He contributes this regular commentary Climate for Change in Nepali Times.

Ajaya Dixit


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