Climate change is undeniably the single most urgent, compelling and critical issue that has both captured the imagination and contorted the thinking perspective across continents today. However, the debate surrounding this seminal subject has assumed ideological hues and entrenched colours, thereby threatening to obfuscate the big picture. While the left hurls ridicule on an irresponsible and greed fueled consumerist right, the right in its defense holds the left totally culpable for what it alleges are contemptible anti-capitalist views. However, when it comes to the question of global warming, by engaging in this needless mudslinging, both parties miss the woods for the trees.
In a commendable attempt to clear the clutter and cut away the cobwebs clouding the climate change argument, Joshua S. Goldstein (Professor Emeritus of International Relations, American University and Research Scholar, Dept. of Political Science, University of Massachusetts) and Staffan A. Quist (University of California, Berkeley), in their new book “A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow” (“the book”) take the issue of climate change head-on. Forcefully arguing that the need of the hour is for the world to put into effect a policy of decarbonisation – the reduction or removal of carbon dioxide from energy sources – the authors highlight the fact that “at today’s rate, every year the world puts about 35 billion tons of new CO2 into an atmosphere…. That much CO2 weighs about as much as 15 billion Ford Explorer SUVs….” This alarming tendency as per the authors illustrates in stark detail the difference between the “inconveniences and expenses of today’s climate change” and the “catastrophe of climate tipping points in the upcoming decades of centuries”. Imagine Boston going under a mile-thick sheet of ice as was the case 12,000 years ago!
Where the book gets extremely interesting and equally controversial is in the solution proposed by the authors to ameliorate and reverse the thrust of CO2 into the atmosphere. Taking the examples of Sweden, France and Ontario as precedents, Mr. Goldstein and Mr. Quist propose nuclear energy as the most viable, feasible, durable and reliable source of energy substituting the currently prevalent coal based power generation. According to the authors by adopting the nuclear approach, Sweden, from 1970 to 1990, “cut its total carbon emissions by half and its emission per person by more than 60 percent……Sweden’s economy expanded by 50 percent and its electricity generation more than doubled”. To clarify the authors do not advocate the abdication of other alternative energy sources powered by renewables. What they instead propose is a judicious and prudent blend of nuclear energy and renewables: what they imaginatively term “Nuables”. Citing the Swedish success story liberally, the authors explain how “Sweden built a series of power plants using a new energy source called karnkraft (Swedish for nuclear). One pound of karnkraft fuel produces the same energy as more than 2 million pounds of coal”. In the event one was to replace the nuclear plant at Ringhals in Sweden with its coal equivalent, the result would be “almost 11 million tons of coal each year – a train more than 1,300 miles long, producing 2 million tons of toxic solid waste, and spewing huge clouds of particulates into the air – enough to kill about 700 Swedes each year”.
While relying on renewables as a source of energy is a wonderful proposition, the authors engage in a comparability between a policy having renewables as its focus and an alternative one based on nuclear energy. For solar power to be effective, weather not surprisingly is a key determinant. Peak energy is produced only during the best season, the best weather, and the best time of the day. At night, during winter and even on cloudy days, the production outcome is closer to zero. Add to that the sprawling area required for the installation of a solar power facility (the largest solar power facility in Europe, the Solarpark Meuro in Germany covers about 500 acres on a former lignite coal strip-mining site), the scale and timing issues of solar power generation is complete.
Similar are the drawbacks with employing wind power. Wind is rarely more reliable than sunshine and even with the installation of the most sophisticated wind turbines, production of wind power would not occur when needed, but variably and at times too much and at others too little. Further, the windiest places are normally farthest from the cities where the wind power is consumed. Europe’s largest wind farm Fantanele-Cogealac in Romania covering a whopping 2,700 acres produced 25 percent below capacity in 2013.
As the authors, aided by their meticulous and painstaking research inform us, “over the past decade, the world has spent $2 trillion on wind and solar power but has seen almost no progress towards decarbonisation”. Equally disappointing has been the experience an experiment with hydropower. The debilitating impacts of the hydroelectric dams being developed on the iconic Mekong river in Southeast Asia and the catastrophic Banqiao dam disaster illustrate in chilling detail the failings of hydro power.
The authors also address concerns regarding the safe operations of a nuclear reactor. Commonly (in as per the authors) wrongly termed “regret solution”, a nuclear reactor invokes emotions of dread, catastrophe and apocalypse especially in the light of tragedies such as The Daiichi Fukushima tsunami, The Chernobyl disaster and The Three Mile Accident. In an exceptional piece of revelation, the authors disclose, “the health risks from the Fukushima reactor (even when employing the absolutely most conservative analysis methods possible), were in fact so low that in retrospect, the optimal responses would have been to not evacuate anyone”. Continuing with this stunning defense of the nuclear reactor, the authors go on: “the unnecessary evacuation…. caused about 50 deaths among patients moved from hospitals, and as many as 1,600 deaths in the longer term, owing to elevated mortality from causes such as diabetes, smoking and suicide among psychologically stressed evacuees”. While the earthquake and tsunami themselves took 18,000 lives, not a single one of them was attributed to the reactor or the radiation per se! Yet Japan in the wake of this disaster closed fifty-four reactors and Germany eight more. As the authors conclude their argument with a flourish, “radiation rarely kills anyone, but fear of radiation kills a lot of people”. Nuclear power which has until now completed more than 16,000 reactor years, has had one fatal accident in the form of Chernobyl that consumed 4,000 lives; a Japanese disaster that killed none and an accident in the USA that merely destroyed an expensive facility. Coal on the other hand is what the authors profess to be a silent killer. “Mortality effects have been estimated at 29 deaths/TWh in Europe and 77 in China, which suggests an order of magnitude of 600,000 deaths a year just from coal use in generating electricity.”
Thus in a stirring and spirited argument, the authors exhort us not to get swayed by the vindications of anti-nuclear protest groups and purveyors of doom and to instead, embark upon a portfolio approach, which consists of a mix of nuclear power and renewables. The authors also bring our attention to the most sophisticated third and fourth generation nuclear reactors that are being constructed according the highest possible degrees of protection against natural calamities and man made threats. A classic example of one such reactor being the EPR (originally the “European Pressurised Reactor”) created by the French nuclear company AREVA. With India and China bringing out thousands of people out of the pernicious clutch of poverty, there is a burgeoning demand for energy from these two countries that have hitherto been ravenous consumers of coal. The authors argue that it is time for these two economic behemoths to concentrate on nuclear energy and thereby prevent an irreversible destruction caused by an uncontrolled release of CO2 emissions.
There is yet hope as there exist some 449 reactors in 31 countries producing 11 percent of the world’s electricity. A continuing reliance on nuclear power coupled with emission containing measures such as a revenue neutral carbon fee (of the likes being administered in the Canadian province of British Columbia) will, in the opinion of the authors go a long way towards the path of attaining decarbonisation. We have a choice of either leaving a clean, fair and habitable planet to the future generation or to act in a selfish manner by damaging the ecosystem with reckless abandon. Either of these approaches would result in significant outcomes as to quote Robert Green Ingersoll “In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are consequences.” Mr. Goldstein and Mr. Quist opine the same!