Category Archives: Global warming

The Culture of Saying No To Everything

Published in the Telegraph-Journal 26th October 2012

We are faced with a number of choices over how power is produced. Fossil fuels are known to have a comprehensive and pervasive impact on the environment, including air pollution and acid rain. At the point of extraction, fossil fuels can have a substantial landscape impact (tar sands, coal mines, shale gas wellhead fields). Of the range of fossil fuels, natural gas has the lowest environmental impact. Fossil fuels are also ready to use.

Wind power has diffuse landscape impacts (wind farms) but questions about the effects of windmill operation have emerged and are now being studied Tidal power has relatively less environmental impact although research has not yet determined the effects of power generation technology on marine life. Solar power has a light environmental footprint but requires substantial land coverage to generate sufficient power. Wind, tidal and solar power sources currently are also more expensive than power generated by fossil fuels, although medium- and long-term research and development is expected to address this shortcoming. Each method of generating power has its shortcomings, critics and opponents.

Generally, no-one wants a source of power generation to occupy their property. In a not-in-my-backyard way, none of these options is acceptable and none of them is desirable. This also means that we have found ways to say no to everything. And it is particularly problematic that we have now said no to nuclear power at a time when we need it most.

In the heated discussions over how coal, tar sands oil and shale gas contribute too much to global warming to justify their use, nuclear power increasingly is being left out of the equation. The operating assumption in some quarters is that the days when nuclear power generation was a prominent component of the national energy portfolio are now long gone.

An obvious reason for this recent loss of confidence in nuclear power is the recent failure of Japan’s Fukushima facilities in 2011 and extends to the impact of earlier system failures at Chernobyl, Browns Ferry and Three Mile Island. Opposition is also in response to the culture of secrecy and inscrutability surrounding nuclear facilities as much as the Fukushima event.

It may be possible to replace power generation from all current sources with renewable energy. But doing so would take longer and cost significantly more than if we were to sustain nuclear power as part of the mix. The goal of replacing coal, oil and gas sources with renewables in the same timeframe to prevent runaway warming may be an almost insuperable one. Achieving this goal while replacing nuclear power may be impossible.

As a consequence of terminating its nuclear program in response to environmentalist demands, Germany will produce an additional 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide between now and 2020, nearly as much as the European savings resulting from the energy efficiency directive combined. This is despite Germany’s efforts at efficiency improvements and new investment in renewables. A similar situation is emerging in Japan as it switches from low-carbon nuclear power generation to coal and LNG. Other countries are now headed down the same path.

It may be that no options for generating power are good ones. Since Fukushima, the number of those who oppose nuclear power has risen dramatically. But if the world’s nuclear plants that are shut down are not replaced by more nuclear power, the power gap will almost certainly be filled by coal and gas, substantially increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

There is general agreement that the world should dramatically reduce its total energy use. Currently it is unclear whether the conservation objective is to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels or to assist in the elimination of our reliance on nuclear power. In an age that increasingly is characterized by saying no to everything, it is difficult to see how we can simultaneously achieve both objectives.

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Filed under Environment policy, Global warming, Nuclear power

The Global Warming Policymaking Paradox

Published in the Telegraph-Journal 23rd October 2012

There exists a paradox at the center of efforts to deal with global warming that is directly related to how quickly policymakers limit greenhouse gases. If policymakers limit greenhouse gases too quickly, the price of power – electricity and fossil fuels – will rise precipitously, causing competitiveness challenges in industry potentially leading to unemployment and triggering a political backlash from the public. However, if policymakers limit greenhouse gases too slowly, clean energy alternatives cannot become cost-competitive with fossil fuels in time to prevent disastrous global warming.

Remarkably, no country has developed a comprehensive energy policy to prepare for the inevitable global warming crisis. Expressions such as sustainable energy, the “green revolution” and the “green economy” gave the appearance that a global movement to end the reliance on fossil fuels finally was under way. Alternative energy was identified as one of the world’s emerging economic growth engines. Over the last ten years, significant investment has gone into alternative energy including wind power, tidal power, solar power and electric vehicles in an attempt to build a bridge to a fossil-fuel-free future.

What happened to the green economy? The initial optimism has been diluted by a number of factors. Alternative energy has turned out to be more expensive than initially calculated. Developing enough of it to provide widespread power has proven stubbornly difficult. The technologies themselves have not responded to investment in ways that were initially anticipated and breakthrough innovations have been few and far between. We have discovered no Moore’s Law for alternative energy technologies.

The 2007-2009 financial crisis placed many alternative energy projects on hold, especially if they required substantial government funding. Further, the crisis precipitated a global economic recession from which many nations have not yet recovered. Renewable energy has not been exempt from the phenomenon of dampened investment.

This global economic weakening was reflected in the retrenchment of many nations away from an ambitious and expansive consensus solution to global warming. The commitment to renewable energy, especially wind and solar power, as the primary means of cutting carbon emissions began to wane. This decreased commitment occurred at the same time that multilateral treaties and regulatory regimes failed to provide the institutional foundations that the green movement needed.

The 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster instantly altered the discussion on energy policy and suddenly nuclear power was written out of the equation. This was a huge blow to the potential success for the sustainable energy movement which held that nuclear energy was at the forefront of an paradigm shift toward a truly sustainable, low-carbon energy future. There had always been a strong anti-nuclear sentiment that was suspicious of what it considered government and industry mythology about nuclear safety. The Fukushima incident converted this suspicion into widespread anti-nuclear sentiment that quickly spread to Germany, Spain, Italy, Taiwan and the United States.

This shift from exuberant confidence in an easy and effortless bridge from our current reliance on fossil fuels to renewable sustainable energy to a darker and more pessimistic vision for energy has had profound consequences. The United States, after demonstrating initial support and enthusiasm for a paradigmatic shift in the future of energy, now favours a more incremental approach to transitioning from dirty – and foreign – fossil fuels to renewable energy. The most obvious element of this approach has been support for shale gas.

Many Americans stress that because energy innovation takes a long time, the U.S. must keep investing in its energy future. Energy innovation will mean replacements not only for coal, conventional oil and gas but shale gas as well. For these replacements to be successful, they should allow policymakers to limit greenhouse gases quickly enough to have a favourable effect but not so quickly to place excessive stress on an already weakened economy. The chief uncertainty is whether there will be enough public support for these incremental measures to succeed.

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Filed under Environment, Global warming, Shale Gas