Quantifying risk

Balancing {en:risk} is a difficult discipline. The standard definition of risk is that:

Risk = Probability of an accident  * impact of  the accident.

A discussion of risk often starts with this definition, then goes on to show that the definition is wrong or meaningless. When an uncertain but very small number is multiplied by an equally uncertain but very big one, the product could be anything in between. It’s a formula that can be used to argue both that billions should be spent on stopping asteroids from colliding with the earth and that the issue should be ignored altogether.

More down-to-earth events might be even harder, when you try to determine the probability or quantify the “impact” of something. This was examplified recently.  A high-profile project in Norway has been  a test center for  carbon capture at Mongstad, which aims to reduce the CO2 emissions from the industry.  The technology for this might be {en:amine} based, which prompted an article in Teknisk Ukeblad on the  toxic emissions such a carbon capture plant might produce. The emission of amines are said to present a risk of cancer to people living nearby the plant, or be toxic in other ways. (I know nothing of amine chemistry and can’t voucher for this)

In a comment The  Norwegian Pollution Control Authority said: (my translation)

– As always, we will try to reduce the risk as much as possible. CO2-emissions also have consequences and this will have to be considered in a complete evaluation. We try to reduce the environmental risk as far as possible.

How do you even start weighing these risks against each other? Should the cost of global warming be divided by the contribution to it from the mongstad plant? What is the cost of cancer and how do you factor in the uncertainty if we don’t know but only suspect that the amines are dangerous? Is the future benefit of carbon capture technology to be added into the equation? It’s no wonder {en:risk assessment} and {en: risk management|management} is a discipline in its own right today. Though I suspect they ditch the formulas long before they get to a case as complicated as this one.  🙂

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