We have a problem; a huge, gargantuan problem. It would be easy to paint this problem as insurmountable, but we must not do that.
Last month, as a continuation of the climate change mitigation theme I have been considering of late, I started to research and write about the potential for nuclear energy to be the best transition fuel we have, because all too often I heard the term ‘transition fuel’ used in relation to natural gas. Supposedly natural gas has the potential to be a transitional step into a renewable energy system. It is cleaner burning than coal or oil, and produces less carbon dioxide per unit of energy when burnt. The infrastructure it sets up could also be used in a hydrogen powered future where it may be necessary to pump hydrogen around the planet. It could potentially help us achieve the two degree limit we set for ourselves in Paris recently, but the problem is (as I wrote in an article a few months ago) that this target is by no means a safe limit. So my idea was that if a transition fuel was necessary, why not make it nuclear energy?
I can feel the recoil from many people already, especially here in New Zealand. But we are not talking about nuclear weapons here, we’re talking about nuclear energy. It is efficient, produces no greenhouse gases, and is safe. In the wake of Fukishima many people find that statement hard to believe, understandably. But in over 50 years of nuclear energy there have only been three catastrophic incidents. These gain more attention for their spectacle, yet other energy sources silently kill far more people every year. As energy expert at the Centre for American Progress Joseph Romm states “nothing is worse than fossil fuels for killing people”. Most deaths from nuclear energy stem from mining uranium, but even then, the fatality rate is far lower than all other energy sources.
So I was going well, the urgency of climate change requires us to switch from carbon dioxide emitting fuels as soon as possible, and as a transition fuel option, nuclear was coming out far better than natural gas. But then I started to question the need for a transition fuel at all. The only reason we subscribe to this idea of a transition fuel at all is because of a tacit acceptance of the status quo. That is; the market is best at determining what our sources of energy should be. Why we ever allowed ourselves to be convinced that the marketplace, motivated only by profit, is better at determining our energy sources than our own human intelligence, informed by data and logic, I cannot fathom. But this is when I decided to change my tack and investigate whether it is possible to power our planet from renewables alone, whether we need a combination of renewables and nuclear, or whether it is simply not feasible to replace fossil fuel with renewables and nuclear.
And this is when I encountered the massive problem: while reliable data on renewables and nuclear capability energy is difficult to come by and conflicting, fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) still account for approximately 80% of our total energy consumption worldwide. We still have an insatiable appetite for them, and only recently Antarctica hit the 400 parts per million milestone of carbon dioxide atmospheric levels for the first time in four million years; a sign that there is no slowdown in the amount of carbon dioxide we are releasing into the atmosphere. Nuclear energy has increased nearly ten-fold in about forty years; perhaps a sign that this may be a saviour, given the huge problem facing renewable proliferation that is storage. Solar and wind do require large amounts of land and there are potential toxic side-effects in the production of photovoltaics, but I do not understand why we cannot make energy production an integral part of every new building. Solar panels on roofs should be as commonplace as insulation. We should be retrofitting all buildings with power production capabilities. This obviously costs money, but with government support it could be done, all that is required is the displacement of a fraction of the money we spend on wars, or an increase in taxes. It is a small price to pay for the salvation of our planet.
In the meantime, we need an independent body to investigate the capabilities of renewable energy. Whether nuclear energy is necessary to be used in conjunction with renewables or whether we can achieve our energy goals by renewables alone. Because while there are tales of Germany’s success in increasing renewable energy sources so much that electricity prices actually went negative, this is undercut by the fact that they are closing nuclear power plants before coal power plants and that they still rely on nuclear energy from France, a claim which is then refuted by other sources. If I had the time, I could trawl through each governments energy data, expert scientific analysis of wind and solar capabilities, and independent studies of renewable energy, and I may still do that, but this will take hours upon hours of work. But I cannot make a solid, practical case for renewables with the limited knowledge I currently have access to. All I can do is point to the catastrophic consequences that will occur and are already occurring because of the climate change that is driven by our ravenous consumption of fossil fuels and hope upon hope that we abandon fossil fuels as soon as possible because right now, we don’t even have a plan to abandon them. That is the definition of madness.
It may be time for me to become a full-time independent journalist…
image via shutterstock.com