Kicking the Carbon Habit: Global Warming and the Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy


With glaciers melting, oceans growing more acidic, species dying out, and catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina ever more probable, strong steps must be taken now to slow global warming. Further warming threatens entire regional economies and the well being of whole populations, and in this century alone, it could create a global cataclysm. Synthesizing information from leading scientists and the most up-to-date research, science journalist William Sweet examines what the ...

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Kicking the Carbon Habit: Global Warming and the Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy

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With glaciers melting, oceans growing more acidic, species dying out, and catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina ever more probable, strong steps must be taken now to slow global warming. Further warming threatens entire regional economies and the well being of whole populations, and in this century alone, it could create a global cataclysm. Synthesizing information from leading scientists and the most up-to-date research, science journalist William Sweet examines what the United States can do to help prevent climate devastation.

Rather than focusing on cutting oil consumption, which Sweet argues is expensive and unrealistic, the United States should concentrate on drastically reducing its use of coal. Coal-fired plants, which currently produce more than half of the electricity in the United States, account for two fifths of the country's greenhouse gas emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Sweet believes a mixture of more environmentally sound technologies-wind turbines, natural gas, and nuclear reactors-can effectively replace coal plants, especially since dramatic improvements in technology have made nuclear power cleaner, safer, and more efficient.

Sweet cuts through all the confusion and controversies. He explores dramatic advances made by climate scientists over the past twenty years and addresses the various political and economic issues associated with global warming, including the practicality of reducing emissions from automobiles, the efficacy of taxing energy consumption, and the responsibility of the United States to its citizens and the international community to reduce greenhouse gases. Timely and provocative, Kicking the Carbon Habit is essential reading for anyone interested in environmental science, economics, and the future of the planet.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews

The Chronicle Review - Doug Macdougall

His lively, clear reporting of both the science and politics of climate change... Make the book a pleasure to read.

Wall Street Journal - William Tucker

Sweet knows what he is talking about... Kicking the Carbon Habit is a great place to kick-start the debate and cool down the rhetoric.

Physics Today - Andrew C. Kadak

A must-read for anyone who wants a good summary of our current understanding of global warming and the options before us.


The book is extremely well written... Highly recommended.

The Chronicle Review
His lively, clear reporting of both the science and politics of climate change... Make the book a pleasure to read.

— Doug Macdougall

Wall Street Journal
Sweet knows what he is talking about... Kicking the Carbon Habit is a great place to kick-start the debate and cool down the rhetoric.

— William Tucker

Globe and Mail

An important contribution to the debate.


The book is extremely well written... Highly recommended.

Future Survey

Clearly written and very well-informed.

Physics Today
A must-read for anyone who wants a good summary of our current understanding of global warming and the options before us.

— Andrew C. Kadak

The Exeter Bulletin

Sweet's book is a readable, compelling and hard-nosed analysis of this vast and complicated subject.

The Midwest Book Review

[An] excellent survey perfect for both school and public libraries.

Globe & Mail
An important contribution to the debate.
Publishers Weekly
Polar icecaps are melting, ocean levels are rising, greenhouse gas emissions are accelerating-and, says Sweet, the villain of catastrophic climate change is coal, whose sooty carbon emissions make it the single worst energy source. That's the essence of science journalist Sweet's sweeping survey of the America's energy options. He's no fan of oil but acknowledges that its use is too entrenched in our car-driven culture for consumption to be cut anytime soon. He's pessimistic about the time line for implementing fuel-cell technology and sees no fast fix through solar power. And while he agrees that natural gas is cleaner than oil or coal, transmission and storage costs, as well as Chinese and Indian competition for supplies, limit its usefulness for America. That leaves wind generation, among the cleanest energy sources, and nuclear plants, perhaps the most feared, as his chosen methods for powering America's future. Sweet points to Denmark and Great Britain among countries turning to wind farms as a major source of electric power. And in an argument that will dismay many, he cites the Chernobyl nuclear disaster as an aberration in the generally safe record of nuclear energy. It's a grim but realistic assessment. (June) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Reports of the Antarctic ice sheet melting and the addition of polar bears to the endangered species list raise the question-is it global warming, or is it just age-old fluctuations in climate? Sweet, editor of IEEE Spectrum (the official publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers), uses interviews and scientific models from leading experts to argue cogently that there is indeed a drastic change occurring in the world's climate owing to global warming. Rather than focus on cutting oil consumption, he proposes the United States should instead drastically reduce its use of coal-especially for coal-fired plants that currently produce more than half the nation's electricity-by effectively using a mixture of technologies such as wind turbines, natural gas, and safe nuclear reactors. Together with Mark Lynas's High Tide: The Truth About Our Climate Crisis, this work is for readers who have already made up their minds about global warming, not for readers on the fence. For all academic and public libraries.-Eva Lautemann, Georgia Perimeter Coll. Lib., Clarkston Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231137119
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 2/15/2008
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.70 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

William Sweet is a graduate of the University of Chicago and Princeton University. He is senior news editor at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. His work has appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, and MIT's Technology Review.

Columbia University Press

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Read an Excerpt

Kicking the Carbon Habit

Global Warming and the Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy
By William Sweet

Columbia University Press

Copyright © 2006 William Sweet
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-231-13710-9

Chapter One

A Second Look at Nuclear Energy

If the world's greenhouse gas emissions are to be kept from more than doubling in this century, the United States is going to have to do not just its fair share, so to speak, but a little more. This is because as the world's richest and most highly endowed country, it can afford to do more; because U.S. use of energy is singularly extravagant; and because the world's poor countries cannot be stopped from developing as fast as they can and therefore using more energy than at present.

An affordable and achievable energy future for the United States would look roughly like this: in the next decades, economic growth will be achieved without any net increases in energy demand; conservation and efficiency, encouraged by some combination of carbon emissions taxes and gasoline taxes, or by a cap-and-trade system for carbon and fuel-efficiency requirements for automobiles, will take care of that. At the same time, combustion of coal by conventional means will be phased out: until advanced coal gasification and carbon sequestration technologies are feasible on a large scale, carbonemissions from the coal sector will be reduced by switching to low-carbon and zero-carbon fuels. Wind but not solar energy will be able to provide a sizable fraction of the electricity now provided by coal, and natural gas ought to be able to take another bite, if supply problems are solved. (As noted previously, at least one major pipeline will be needed to carry gas from Alaska to the Lower 48, and a network of port terminals to handle sea-borne carriers of liquefied natural gas.) But with natural gas already in high demand and short supply, even without the added pressures on natural gas availability that will result as the automotive economy ultimately switches over to vehicles powered by fuel cells, natural gas cannot be expected to get the whole job done. Accordingly, it will be desirable if nuclear power-an even better substitute for coal than natural gas-can play a part as well.

Consider, again, the basic numbers. Per unit of energy consumed, electricity generated from natural gas produces about half the carbon emissions of electricity generated from coal. Electricity generated in nuclear reactors produces, for all practical purposes, no carbon emissions. Accordingly, with coal combustion in the U.S. electricity sector accounting for roughly a third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, if (to take the extreme case) all that coal-fired electricity were replaced by nuclear electricity, the immediate effect would be to reduce U.S. carbon emissions by about a third. If, alternatively, it were all replaced by natural gas, the reduction would be perhaps a fifth or a sixth.

Looked at in this perspective, it is tempting to say that the United States simply cannot get along without increased reliance on nuclear energy. Having long refused to join in the Kyoto effort, and having allowed its greenhouse gas emissions to steadily rise, it now-once it decides to get with the program, that is-will have to cut emissions much more radically than if it had joined in the late 1990s, when it originally intended to. At that time, meeting Kyoto targets would have required cuts of only about 7 percent. Now, 10 years later, the cuts will have to be closer to 20 or 25 percent. And to go beyond that and do better than Kyoto, which is what the situation requires, will call for cuts on the order of a third.

It's hard to see how that goal could possibly be achieved without greater reliance on nuclear energy. But of course it's no good to say we have to do something, even if it has undesirable effects, because we just can't get along without it. If something's just plain bad, you don't do it no matter how much you may feel you need to. But is nuclear energy bad? Should we forego it on principle? Or is it, on balance, a positive good?

The first and most important thing that can be said of nuclear reactors is that they work. In contrast to many of the other energy technologies that have been reviewed as candidates for supplanting carbon-based fuels-whether it's central generation of electricity by very large solar arrays, carbon sequestration, or vehicles powered by fuel cells running on hydrogen-nuclear power is a well-proven technology capable of producing electricity at costs that are commercially competitive right now.

It was not always so. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when a lively debate over the nuclear option erupted in the United States, Japan, and above all in Europe, the performance of nuclear reactors was often poor. Reactors were enormously expensive and complicated to build, and were constantly in need of special maintenance or repair, which was devastating to the case for nuclear energy. Since reactors cost much more up front than any of the other major sources of electricity, their economic viability depends on lower operating costs. If the reactors are not actually operating much of the time, then it obviously was a mistake to deploy them in the first place. In fact, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of the world's reactors were running barely more than half the time. This-not the wide popular opposition to nuclear energy-is the main reason utilities worldwide stopped ordering any new reactors in the last two decades of the twentieth century. From roughly 1980 to 2005, not a single order was placed in the United States, and hardly any were placed elsewhere.

During those decades, however, reactor performance began to steadily improve, without attracting too much notice from the general public. The numbers are impressive: in 1980, U.S. nuclear reactors were generating electricity only 56.3 percent of the time on average; in 2004, the reactors were running 90.5 percent of the time (see graph). During this period, the anticipated life expectancy of reactors also increased notably-an important consideration, given their very high capital costs (though perhaps not quite as important as one might suppose). In the early years, many nuclear critics believed that the materials in the power plants might degrade faster than nuclear proponents claimed, mainly because of intense bombardment by radiation. But it turns out that most reactors are holding up better than expected. In the United States and in some of the other countries that went nuclear early on, utilities that had obtained licenses to run nuclear plants for 40 years are now applying to extend those licenses for another 20 years.

In several large advanced industrial countries, nuclear energy has been supplying very large fractions of total electricity for decades, without any major mishaps. In France, which has probably the best reputation for strong nuclear management, reactors supply three quarters of the country's electricity. In Sweden and South Korea the proportion is roughly 50 percent, and in countries like Japan, Germany, and the United States it hovers around 20 to 25 percent. Even at the low end of that range, 20 percent represents a huge quantity of energy-only coal produces much more in the United States, with natural gas running about even with nuclear.

Despite those numbers, nuclear construction has remained at a standstill almost everywhere except in East Asia and India; furthermore, some countries have decided in principle to phase out all reliance on nuclear reactors as fast as possible. Austria already has terminated its nuclear program, and Sweden and Germany are more or less determined to do so. The global implications of such commitments need to be kept clearly in view. To the extent countries decide to eliminate nuclear energy, all the more low-carbon or zero-carbon energy must be found to replace it. The Germans believe they can pull this off, mainly by continuing to deploy wind turbines; the Swedes cling to the notion that they can replace nuclear electricity with electricity generated by combustion of carbon-neutral biomass, and perhaps they too can succeed, though successive governments have dragged their heels. Conceivably the United States could effect a nuclear phaseout too, but the scope of its problem is even greater than in a country like Germany, because of its tardiness in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Replacing the electricity produced from coal with low-carbon or zero-carbon energy means finding new ways to generate about half the electricity now consumed in the United States. If nuclear power were phased out too, nearly three quarters of the country's electricity would have to be produced some other way.


Excerpted from Kicking the Carbon Habit by William Sweet Copyright © 2006 by William Sweet. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 The case of sharply cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 1
2 The basis of it all : Pennsylvania in the Pennsylvanian 11
3 The air we breathe : the human costs of coal combustion 27
4 From outer space : Asia's brown cloud, and more 46
5 The drillers 63
6 The modelers 88
7 The synthesizers 111
8 Breaking the carbon habit 133
9 Going all out for renewables, conservation, and green design 148
10 Natural gas, gasoline, and the vision of a hydrogen economy 167
11 A second look at nuclear energy 180
Conclusion : how to reduce greenhouse gases now, using today's technology 197
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