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Why a Green Future Needs Nuclear Power
By Mark Lynas
UIT Cambridge LtdCopyright © 2013 Mark Lynas
All rights reserved.
How we got to where we are
Carbon emissions from fossil-fuel burning (ignoring agriculture, deforestation and cement production), which already total about 32 billion tonnes of CO2 per year, on average rose by 676 million tonnes annually from 2000 to 2010. This is equivalent to almost twice the emissions of Brazil added to the global total during each twelve-month period. Although this massive increase in fossil-fuel burning has caused disastrous pollution and health impacts in China and elsewhere, the dramatic rise in global CO2 is actually a good thing in one respect, because it shows that developing countries are expanding their energy consumption in order to extricate themselves from centuries of famine and misery. In other words, we are losing the war on carbon precisely because we are winning the war on poverty.
The rise of the rest
Energy use, and in particular electricity use, is tightly correlated with human welfare. Access to modern energy sources – electricity and natural gas rather than charcoal, firewood or dung – saves hundreds of thousands of lives per year through avoided respiratory disease alone. Development is also the best insulator against climate extremes, which is why African droughts can kill tens of thousands of people from starvation and famine, while Australian droughts kill none. It is ironic but true that for developing countries currently the best way to protect against the future effects of climate change is to burn more fossil fuels and thereby accelerate their economic development, despite the obvious wide-scale negative consequences from smogs, traffic pollution, acid rain and so on.
The common simplistic answer to this conundrum – to dramatically reduce energy use in rich countries in order to compensate for growth in the developing world – simply won't work: the coming growth in energy demand is an order of magnitude more than could ever be saved even by the most extreme energy efficiency measures adopted in the West. Consider that the 19.5 million inhabitants of New York State consume the same amount of electricity as the 791 million people in sub-Saharan Africa: satisfying this unfulfilled African demand up to American standards would require a 40-fold increase in the production of energy. In total, 1.4 billion people still do not have access to electricity today. All of them want it, of course, and will soon get it as their countries develop.
With the exception of a few war-torn states, a scattering of autocracies and theocratic outliers such as North Korea and Iran, every developing country in the world is today enjoying sustained growth. Africa, once the world's basket case, is now the world's fastest-growing continent – witness its 'lion economies', where per-capita income rose by 30 per cent in the last decade alone. (The Asian 'tigers' have helped; The Economist reports that over the past decade African trade with China has risen from $11 billion to $166 billion.) This increased wealth has contributed to dramatically improved human welfare: secondary school enrolment is up by 50 per cent, while infant mortality rates have plummeted in almost every country.
Although Africa is in the early stages of the energy catch-up game, Asia has been powering ahead for much longer. Between 2001 and 2011, Indonesia increased its electricity generation by 79 per cent; Bangladesh by 150 per cent and Vietnam by 261 per cent. This coming to wealth and power – in both senses of the latter word – of the developing world is the great tectonic geopolitical shift of our time, dubbed by CNN's Fareed Zakaria as 'the rise of the rest'. As he writes: "The tallest building in the world is now in Dubai. The world's richest man is Mexican, and its largest publicly traded corporation is Chinese." Poverty, as defined by the number of people living on less than $1 a day, has plummeted by 40 per cent since the 1980s. Between 1990 and 2010, the size of the world economy tripled, with over half the growth coming in so-called 'emerging markets'.
The epicentre for this developing-world economic expansion has of course been China. As Zakaria writes: "China has grown over 9 per cent a year for almost 30 years, the fastest rate for a major economy in recorded history. In that same period, it has moved around 400 million people out of poverty, the largest reduction that has taken place anywhere, anytime." He concludes: "The average Chinese person's income has increased twentyfold ... China has compressed the West's 200 years of industrialization into 30."
The vast majority of the new energy for this economic growth has been provided by coal. In China, half of all rail-freight capacity is currently used to transport coal from mines to power-plant furnaces. China's electricity generation more than tripled between 2001 and 2011 (an increase of 217 per cent), and, apart from small contributions from wind, nuclear and hydropower, all this growth has been driven by coal. As the International Energy Agency (IEA) wrote in the title of a recent slide presentation: "China is coal. Coal is China."
China now uses about half the world's coal, and produces a quarter of global CO2. (The US produces just over a sixth of global CO2, though it is important in equity terms to remember that US per-capita emissions of 17 tonnes still dwarf China's per-capita 5 tonnes.) China's consumption of coal more than doubled during the last decade, rising by 155 per cent from 2001 to 2011. The oft-quoted 'factoid' that China adds two coal-fired power stations every week to itsgrid is not quite accurate; the true figure for the last decade was 1.15 new coal-fired power stations per week. The total coal-generation-capacity addition between 2000 and 2010 was 450 gigawatts – about 1.3 times the entire coal-power capacity of the US. China adds the equivalent of the whole UK coal fleet every six months.
China is coal, but coal is not just China. Coal is India too. As the 2012 IEA Coal Market Report put it: "Endowed with large coal reserves, a population of more than 1 billion, electricity shortages and the largest pocket of energy poverty in the world, India makes the perfect cocktail to boost coalconsumption." India is soon expected to pass the US as the world's second-largest coal consumer after China.
For coal, the only way is up. The IEA's 2012 coal report predicts: "The world will burn around 1.2 billion more tonnes of coal per year by 2017 compared with today. That's more than the current annual coal consumption of the United States and Russia combined." In terms of our energy mix, therefore, and despite tablet computers, synthetic biology and Twitter, we are really only midway through the Industrial Revolution. There is still a long way to go in terms of the rather old-fashioned human habit of extracting carbon-containing materials from underground and setting fire to them in various ingenious ways to run our machines.
It is worth mentioning at this stage that there is no prospect whatsoever of us running out of coal – or indeed any other fossil fuel – in time to stop runaway climate change. China has the third-largest coal reserves in the world, after the US and Russia; India the fifth-largest. At current rates of production, global coal supplies will last for 112 years, and no doubt vast new reserves still remain to be found.
Perhaps that is just as well, in human welfare terms. Although climate impacts are unlikely to drive resource wars any time soon, true energy shortages might well have done. Had China's wave of new growth begun to hit a true wall of 'peak oil' or 'peak coal', the geopolitical implications hardly bear thinking about. One might imagine the nuclear-armed militaries of the two world superpowers clashing over diminishing supplies of the fossil energy. It is therefore lucky for us all that the often-apocalyptic predictions of those who preached the 'peak oil' mantra have so far turned out to be wrong.
Instead of imminent fossil fuel scarcity, in fact, the world now faces an age of astonishing abundance thanks to the new technology of hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking'. Having driven natural gas prices down to unprecedentedly low levels in the US over the last couple of years, the shale gas revolution now promises to repeat the same feat in areas such as China and Europe. Shale gas has provided undeniable short-term climate benefits by driving out the much more carbon-intensive coal from the US power sector, but shale is a double-edged sword. In the longer term, a major expansion in cheap hydrocarbons will surely make it harder to deploy more costly low-carbon alternatives and will thereby increase humanity's total carbon emissions.
Meanwhile, in the US the new talk is of 'Saudi America', as shale oil exploitation becomes the new frontier: by March 2013 the US had actually overtaken Saudi Arabia in total oil production, drilling 11.8 million barrels per day as opposed to 10.85 million. "North America has set off a supply shock that is sending ripples throughout the world," IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven said at the launch of a report on oil markets in May 2013. "The technology that unlocked the bonanza in places like North Dakota can and will be applied elsewhere, potentially leading to a broad reassessment of reserves." In other words, the world is awash with new oil and gas supplies, and probably will be for decades to come.
Industrial society's dependence on fossil fuels is often rhetorically condemned by politicians and campaigners as an 'addiction': one that every US president dutifully pledges (and then duly fails) to kick. During any recitation of the list of fossil fuels' environmental and social ills, it is conveniently forgotten that they remain the foundation of the prosperity we all now take for granted in rich countries. Eco-romantics may fantasize about the pre-fossil fuels economy of the past, but the reality of pre-industrial agrarian society really was slavery, war, famine, disease and a short average lifespan for everyone except a very privileged aristocratic few.
For the thousand years before fossil fuels were harnessed, humans therefore saw almost no long-term economic or population growth. Malthusian checks and balances were all too real. However, at about the turn of the nineteenth century, something dramatic began to happen. Look at any graph of life expectancy, population, GDP and CO2 emissions over the last millennium, and marvel at how all four curves suddenly shoot upwards in about 1800, especially at the epicentre of the Industrial Revolution in the West. This is not just correlation, it is causation. Fossil fuels allowed humanity to transcend previously hard-wired ecological limits that were the result of being tied to a precarious 'organic economy' with only solar-powered photosynthesis for life support.CHAPTER 2
The carbon challenge
Fossil fuels may have liberated us from a crude agrarian existence, but now we are entering a different era. The global-warming crisis is sufficiently urgent that fossil fuels must be phased out and replaced with alternatives that can maintain an energy-intensive and growing human civilization without destroying the life-supporting capacity of the biosphere.
Solar and wind
The standard prescription for tackling climate change is to mobilize a combination of energy efficiency and solar and wind power. While efficiency is clearly a good idea in both theory and practice – you get more services per unit of energy – expecting this combination to actually reduce overall energy use is a different matter. Historically, greater efficiency tends to accompany an increase in overall energy use: Western economies today are generally twice as efficient as they were 40 years ago, but use far more energy in total. There are good economic reasons for this: efficiency reduces the price of energy compared with other factors of production, thereby stimulating demand for energy.
That leaves wind and solar, in the orthodox view. Both are unambiguously low-carbon; I have no truck with sceptics on that point. Research I conducted with the environmental writer Chris Goodall, drawing on several months' data from the UK electricity grid and published in The Guardian, indicated that current wind power generation in Britain successfully replaces gas-fired generation (each hour of wind power is an hour of reduced gas burning) on a megawatt-hour for megawatt-hour basis, and therefore certainly does reduce overall CO2 emissions. Somewhat to my surprise, our research almost exactly confirmed the aggregate CO2 mitigation totals claimed by the wind industry.
It is a myth that at low proportions of total power in the grid – 10 per cent for the UK, US and most other countries – wind intermittency results in fossil-fuelled power plants inefficiently ramping up and down. The additional intermittency is easily absorbed by current system overcapacity, and is less of a problem for grid managers than people switching on their kettles or electric coffee-makers during unscheduled television advertising breaks in major sports tournaments, for example. Yes, this might change with wind power at over 20 to 30 per cent of the total in the grid, but there is enormous debate about what the implications are and how they might be managed. For the foreseeable future, in my view, the more renewables we can add to the grid everywhere, the better.
There are other clear benefits from renewables, too. Unlike thermal power generation using the steam cycle, wind and solar photovoltaics use little or no water. (Some water may be needed for cleaning panels in the case of the latter when deployed in windy, dusty areas.) This makes these power sources especially appropriate for arid areas, where the strongest solar radiation is likely to be found. Renewables are also pollution-free in their operation, whereas burning coal and oil emits cancer-causing particulates, acidic sulphates, mercury and other toxins into our air and water. Although there have been cases of damaging river pollution in Chinese solar PV manufacturing, these are no more inherent to the technology than in any other comparable industrial process. Toxic metals used in some solar cells, such as cadmium and tellurium, can be recycled indefinitely, as can most components of wind turbines, including the 'rare earth' elements.
Unfortunately, renewables are now encountering a rising tide of political opposition. Aesthetic concerns are of course subjective, but some people seem to have an implacable gut hatred of wind turbines in their backyards; if ever the term 'nimby' were appropriate, it would be for these objectors. Likewise, while there clearly are serious issues regarding bird and bat kills in some specific areas of conservation concern, this will not – and should not – preclude the vast majority of both onshore and offshore wind-farm developments.
Some habitat-loss concerns with regard to specific species, such as the desert tortoise, have also affected the solar industry, but the truth is that the Earth has vast areas of barely inhabited deserts, and devoting a few tens of thousands of square kilometres to solar farms is not going to lead to a major crisis in biodiversity. Moreover, I cannot think of a single environmental objection to putting photovoltaics on rooftops, and there are extensive paved and urban areas worldwide that could be covered in this way.
As most readers will doubtless have heard, solar and wind power generation has expanded enormously in recent years. Between 2011 and 2012, wind-energy generation saw a worldwide growth of 18 per cent, and solar enjoyed an even bigger increase of nearly 60 per cent. This is the 'renewables revolution' in action – total wind-generated electricity grew by 200 per cent in the last five years, while solar grew by 1,200 per cent. The costs of solar photovoltaic in particular have fallen dramatically, enabling a much more rapid upscaling of solar than once seemed realistic. In many countries, solar PV is on the verge of achieving the long-sought-after goal of 'grid parity', promising even more rapid expansion in future without the need for subsidies.
Excerpted from Nuclear 2.0 by Mark Lynas. Copyright © 2013 Mark Lynas. Excerpted by permission of UIT Cambridge Ltd.
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