Environmental Orthodoxy Remains a Barrier to Carbon Cuts

The European Commission 2030 White Paper on climate change may be seen as two steps forward, one step back for realistic, effective climate policy.

Two steps forward in that we now have a target that is focused firstly on the ends (carbon reduction), not the means (specific technologies). Secondly, it is rooted in the principle of cost effectiveness. Until now, in Europe, the tendency has been for technology tribalism to over-ride the goal of decarbonisation, in favour of promoting renewables.

Welcoming the proposed 40% target for reduction in GHG emissions, UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary Edward Davey said “It’s good news that the Commission has listened to the UK argument that countries must be allowed to decarbonise in the cheapest way possible. However, the UK remains concerned about any renewables target especially as the debate within Parliament and the British green movement has moved on to technology neutral options like a decarbonisation target as the most cost effective and practical way of fighting climate change.”

The second point on cost-effectiveness is critical for maintaining public support, and for ensuring a long-term sustainable trajectory of emissions reduction across all domestic economies in the EU. If decarbonisation is cost effective it’s less likely to become a political football. As Keith Kloor has argued in his blog “Europe Submits to the Iron Law of Climate Policy” economic worries will always trump environmental policies.

Two steps forward. One step back. The level of institutional bias, manifesting in technology tribalism, is a major barrier to a realistic strategy for decarbonisation. Once again, the European Commission failed to acknowledge that nuclear energy provides two thirds of low carbon power in the EU. The contribution nuclear energy already makes and has the potential to make in the transition from fossil fuels is repeatedly ignored. Too frequently, climate solutions are framed entirely in terms of growth in renewables, which is convenient for the manufacturers of wind and solar, but not for the public goals of decarbonisation.

Whilst we do absolutely need solar, wind and other renewable technologies to grow their market share, (as well as efficiency, demand reduction, storage and combined heat and power) focusing only on renewables risks confusing the means with the end. Not only will this not represent the most cost effective route (and therefore ultimately risks losing public support), but it may also undermine the case for action on climate change altogether. Given right wing skepticism about the performance of renewables, locking the debate into this technology specific frame polarizes the debate on climate. It unhelpfully perpetrates the idea that climate change is no more than a left wing conspiracy, seeking to socially reengineer society by creating an energy austere world where everyone is required to sacrifice their energy rich lifestyles.

The depth of institutional bias against nuclear is staggering. From green investment (for example CERES calling for $1trillion investment in every low carbon tech but nuclear), to think tanks (see for example an otherwise excellent new report by the RSA, ironically on stealth denial) or international institutions (World Bank, United Nations) tunnel vision on climate and energy solutions appear to severely underestimate the scale of the challenge. Of course nuclear is not a panacea any more than renewables are, but it seems foolhardy to take it out of the equation.

Four of the world’s best known and highly regarded climate scientists, including Dr James Hansen, recently wrote an open letter to environmental leaders calling on them to reconsider their opposition to nuclear energy. “To those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power: As climate and energy scientists concerned with global climate change, we are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems. We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.”

The response from the old greens has been total silence. A conspiracy of silence that, in light of the climate emergency humanity is facing, we can no longer afford.

The question is not nuclear versus renewables. It’s nuclear versus coal. (Obviously, coal and gas are more harmful, by an order of magnitude, than nuclear to health and the environment.)

The truth is that, to transition from fossil fuels, we need all the tools in the box. Whether left or right, climate skeptic or green, our shared vision should be for a world in which energy is clean, affordable and abundant. By confusing the means with the end, and by sticking to an unrealistic dogma that renewables alone are the panacea, we risk losing sight of our real goals until it is too late. For the environment movement, the stakes are too high to go on with business as usual.

First published on Business Green

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14 thoughts on “Environmental Orthodoxy Remains a Barrier to Carbon Cuts”

  1. An excellent post! Let me be the first to congratulate you on a fine start. You’re one of my favorite nuclear communicators (although I by no means intend to box you in as that being your only angle, message or attribute) and I’m quite pleased to see you writing vigorously and expressing your very worth-while opinions, rooted in good common sense and taken with a shot of reality. I look forward to reading every post on this blog and engaging in commentary.

    Specifically to this post – thanks for a very thought provoking article. We need to find common ground here to advance big concepts like energy prosperity and energy security while either not increasing or, possibly, reducing pollution at the same time. All sides need to get together to realize that there’s a common good here; everyone wants affordable abundant energy that’s clean. And should have it!

    1. Thanks so much Will. And yes, I completely agree that we need to find common ground by focusing on shared goals, rather than on what divides us if we are to solve big challenges and make life better.

  2. This author says that nuclear is great just because it releases no carbon. But nuclear is unsafe, unclean, and outrageously expensive.

    1. Nuclear IS great because it releases no carbon, delivering continuous industrial quantities of heat for months and months on end from a sealed vessel. Also, contrary to your prejudices, nuclear power is safe, clean, and good value.

      Safe: the safest industry to work in, protects the local communities (see: Onagawa) and holds up even when broken by massive natural disasters than kill multiple thousands in the area.

      Clean: retains and accounts for all waste products.

      Good value: For the up-front investment, provides reliable electricity at reasonable and predictable costs for extended periods in a way that supports long-term infrastructure and economy. Nuclear power is NOT strongly dependent on fluctuating resource prices.

    2. So…
      Unsafe- –
      Far fewer have died from all nuclear accidents combined than die every year from particulate aerosols from coal/gas/oil .Also far fewer (less than 1/10) than have died from hydro accidents (aka Banquio and Vajont – Google them if you don’t believe me)

      Unclean…
      The whole of the French high level waste is contained in one building from 30 years of powering France. (France incidentally has cleanest air in Europe) Plus in latest reactor designs this waste is actually fuel!

      Expensive?
      France has cheapest consumer electricity of any major country in Europe (by a long margin) True – massive over-engineering driven by paranoid anti -nuclear dogma has massively inflated new nuclear cost but even then it is still far cheaper than any other nil CO2 energy generation.

      Dare I suggest that you need to read the science and leave your pre-conceptions to one side for a while.

      Hansen, Lovelock, Wigley, Caldeira, Emanuel, Allinson are as I hope you know, some of the worlds top scientists. They all vigorously support nuclear. You need to analyse why you think they they are wrong and why you are right.

      Remember: Scepticism is Good. Denial is Stupid.

    3. Unfortunately, your comment illustrates exactly the dogmatic orthodoxy that is not grounded in evidence, only in fear. Sadly, these myths about nuclear help to lock us in to a high carbon scenario with all of the associated climate, environmental and public health impacts.

      1. Kirsty, one of the dreams I have is of someday being able to enjoy a blog where comments are filtered for just the sort of canards and slogans re-issued by Miller above, which evaluates, color-codes and hyperlinks them to their refutations.

        Trolls shouldn’t be allowed to waste people’s time debunking them.  Once the job is done properly, it should be done for all time.

  3. Yes, excellent post. I agree with almost all of it. But two comments. I don’t think the European Commission is institutionally biased against nuclear. It avoids mentioning it to try to avoid upsetting the governments of Germany and Austria. In Germany, nuclear is still seen as number one green enemy. Hence over-reaction to Fukushima and consequent increase in coal burn.

    Secondly, it’s good to address the notion that supporting renewables is a left-wing conspiracy. Renewable sceptics are often climate sceptics, and there are more of these on the right. But Tory policies are strongly pro-renewables. Greg Barker is a good minister. As Charles Hendry was. And Greg Clark was a good shadow secretary in opposition. Angela Merkel supports renewables. So did John Major in the past.

    1. Thanks very much Stephen.
      Maybe ‘institutional bias” is not exactly the right term, but I do see the tendency almost everywhere to avoid saying “nuclear”. I have heard various explanations for this. For or example the UN and IAEA conspire to avoid mentioning nuclear, or including it in its definition of sustainable energy because it is “too political”. This is infuriating given the contribution nuclear could make towards meeting UN Millennium Development Goals.

      You’re right that this similar to what we see happening in Europe, probably, as you say, as a sop to Germany and Austria. Whatever the cause, there arguably results an institutional bias against nuclear.

      DECC also displayed institutional bias against nuclear last year in the public opinion tracker survey, asking: “do the benefits of nuclear outweigh the risks?” This question was not asked for any other energy technology, despite the Health and Safety Executive being quite clear that nuclear energy is actually the *safest* form of energy generation, alongside on-shore wind (not sure about off-shore – but certainly similar). This question has now been changed, but shows that (in this case incorrect) individual views about nuclear inform organisational approach, arguably leading to institutional bias.

      Good points about plenty of Conservatives supporting renewables

      Best, Kirsty

  4. What Europe does is largely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, as the fate of the planet is now very much in the hands of the developing nations:

    Developing nations will produce their energy using the cheapest fuel available. Right now that’s Coal. The only way to win this is on economic grounds – we need a fuel cheaper than coal.

    If we want the developing nations to shy away from coal, then we
    should be investing in radically new Nuclear designs, such as Molten Salt Reactors, which *do* have the potential to be cheaper than coal:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/THORIUM-energy-cheaper-than-coal/dp/1478161299

    The author, Robert Hargraves, gave an excellent talk at the ThEC12 conference in Shanghai:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ayIyiVua8cY‎

    Renewables will certainly play a role, but even with significant improvements in efficiency, the main issue with them is that they don’t replace existing energy production, they can only supplement it. There are days when it’s not windy or sunny. On those days you need backup power, so even if you build 100% Renewables, you still need 80-100% of your old power generation equipment, a cost that’s seldom factored in.

    Renewables are great at 10-30% of your power production, but beyond this, you face major issues, as Germany is discovering. Renewables alone aren’t enough to solve this:

    http://www.welt.de/wirtschaft/energie/article123276180/Flaute-und-Wolken-stoppen-Oekostrom-Produktion.html

  5. Nuclear power stations are certainly expensive, and moreover, it is difficult to estimate the actual cost because to varies substantially from project to project.

    Current reactors produce waste that is toxic for thousands of years, and the cost (and risk) of containing it for those thousands of years is another cost to society.

    Nuclear power stations take a long time to build, and so the cycle of innovation moves more slowly. Wind and solar technologies have become an order of magnitude more cost-effective in the last 30 years; not so nuclear. If that unequal progress continues, nuclear power stations may soon be obsolete.

    In my opinion, the dangers and ultimate cost of fossil fuel energy outweighs the costs and dangers of nuclear energy. But I am in a small minority, and I am frankly repulsed by the attitude and arguments of nukophilic folks, like many of the commenters here.

    The right way to promote nuclear, if you think it’s an important part of the solution, is to support general carbon taxes, to investigate what will make people feel safe with nuclear power (hint: it’s not bashing wind and solar or complaining nuclear sites or “over-engineered” for safety), and to find a way to talk to greens, rather than bash them.

    We certainly could power civilization with renewables. There’s no theoretical reason why that wouldn’t work. It would just take a lot more planning, ambition and investment than has so far been forthcoming. Rather than arrogantly dismiss that as impossible, it would be more accurate, as well as more politic, to say that while that is possible, a larger role for nuclear energy over the next century will get us to a low-carbon economy faster and cheaper, in a time when cost and swiftness are of the essence.

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