The carbon foot print of industrial heritage

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    Ellie Swinbank


    I am part of the Scottish Transport and Industrial Collections Knowledge network (STICK) and we have been having an interesting discussion recently about the carbon foot print of industrial heritage, specifically running historic steam engines (although there are certainly other relevant activities). We are concerned that funders are going to become increasingly hesitant to fund projects that might not be considered environmentally sustainable due to the carbon emissions and fossil fuel use at their heart. There is certainly a discussion to be had around the ethics of burning fossil fuels for heritage purposes and the balance of negative emissions vs positive learning outcomes for STEM subjects and environmental education. There is also an argument that the emissions from the whole world’s steam heritage attractions is barely a drop in the ocean when compared to emissions from big business, travel etc.

    I was wondering if anyone here has any thoughts on any of this, or has come across any interesting case studies where perhaps carbon offsetting has been used to compensate for burning fuel or, indeed, if there are any examples of funding being denied due to a perception of negative environmental impact?

    STICK is considering running an online event in April/May that will discuss this topic. I can post details here once they are finalised if anyone is interested.

    Paul Mardikian

    Hi Ellie – I do not have much to offer to “fuel” this discussion but I find this ethical question interesting. What you are describing is extending to all vintage vehicles and machines that are not meeting environmental policies. In my opinion “steam” will always look better than any diesel powered engine and that running these historical locomotives and steam boats or other machines for maintenance and occasional activities should be permitted. Not running them would absolutely ruin them. Thanks for sharing this interesting topic with us. Paul


    The situation in Australia is that the large publicly funded “institutional” museums lost interest and expertise in technological heritage long ago and now generally retain iconic items and some “moving” exhibits driven by hidden electric motors or compressed air.
    The overwhelming majority of industrial/technological heritage from vintage radios to motor vehicles , railways and aircraft conserved in operating condition is owned by individuals or community organisations. Around 500,000 people from a population of 25 million are directly involved and 99% of funding comes from members or visitors.
    The threat of external donors withholding money is not a major concern for these owners and organisations.
    The most serious concerns for operating heritage in Australia (defined as items preserved in original form and performing their original function) are:
    1. Requiring heritage items to comply with 21st century regulations. Carbon emissions will fall into this category but more pressing issues are safety standards (guards on moving parts, infant capsules in veteran cars, etc.), general environmental standards (air and water quality) and the need for infrastructure to meet 21st century load and speed standards (eg. rail and tram permanent way). A study sponsored by Alison (another topic on this forum) is aimed at investigating this situation.
    2. Increasingly high public liability insurance policies (a symptom of society’s increasing tendency to sue each other) are now the major cost for volunteer heritage organisations.
    3. Access to intangible heritage trades and skills to maintain and operate heritage items.
    Access to coal is probably the highest profile concern and the threat of a bureaucrat declaring a total ban is possible.
    Perhaps more insidious is the likely difficulty in obtaining processed mineral fuels in the future such as diesel fuel, motor vehicle and other internal combustion motor fuel and aviation fuels because it will no longer be economically viable to produce them.
    Availability of fuels is not the only concern – incandescent light bulbs, electric valves and high-quality structural timber are now becoming increasingly rare.
    It is now possible to convert a vintage Volkswagen beetle to battery/electric drive – but is an electric VW beetle really a VW Beetle?
    Finally, environmental rating systems in Australia consider the operating cost of a building in tonnes of CO2. We are quite comfortable with the concept of life-cycle cost (capital plus operating cost) of an investment measured in $, £ or € but don’t adopt the same concept for emissions costs. Too often we see heritage industrial buildings demolished and replaced with modern structures in the name of environmental efficiency without considering the “capital cost” of the concrete, steel, glass, plastics, etc. used in construction.

    Ellie Swinbank

    Thanks Paul and Neil very much for your thoughts! All very interesting and I think that all of your points will come up at our webinar, which is going to take place on 22nd April. Please do join us if you would like to, although I realise it may be at some unearthly hour for you! More info here.

    Neil, your third point about access to skills is one that recurs in our discussions. Are there any initiatives in Australia to preserve and perpetuate them?



    Further to your question about skills (nothing to do with fuels).

    We are proposing that technological skills should be recognised as legitimate intangible heritage alongside songs, dances and pizzas.

    There are two categories:
    1. Those requiring formal regulation and certification (usually those involving hazardous work practices).
    All certificated training must be to an accredited course by an accredited trainer from an accredited training organisation. Only large organisations can afford to follow this path.
    Other organisations are relying on “old-timers” with legacy qualifications.
    2. “Other” skills – the thousands of skills required to keep heritage machinery operating.
    These tend to be learnt from others within heritage organisations.

    Mainstream technical training organisations no longer teach heritage skills – for example panel beating is no longer taught, only how to bolt on a new panel. Some sectors, like motor vehicles, are fairly well serviced because there is a critical mass and people can afford to pay for service.
    Other smaller sectors struggle because they don’t have the volume and are sparsely spread across the country. These operating organisations are the last habitats for these intangible skills and do their best to pass them on but they are not ideal training organisations.
    Realistically, the heritage organisations are the only places with the knowledge and equipment to be able to provide practical training on heritage items but they don’t have the expertise to train effectively or efficiently. There are some examples of the two components coming together but they are large capable organisations with centralised facilities.

    The Association of Tourist and Heritage Railways Australia has, after years of trying, succeeded in having their in-house train driving (including steam) and assistant (fireman) courses approved by the national regulator.
    The Historic Aircraft Restoration Society has the largest and most complex collection of flying heritage aircraft in Australia and has teamed up with an accredited training organisation (owned by an aviation heritage enthusiast) and have become an accredited training site. They have also developed and deliver accredited training programs – they have followed the official path.


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