Rauli wrote a journal on his 12 days of attending and handing out (3,000!) Climate Gamble books during COP21 with Janne.
The style is somewhat personal, so read at your own risk. Needless to say, it was a highly interesting trip, going from being teargassed by the riot police to meeting Jim Hansen to speaking at what amounted the first ever COP discussion panel on nuclear and climate that went well and without disturbances.
How dangerous the different energy sources actually are? Evaluating the problems of different energy sources is always wrought with controversy, as there is not and can not be a single, universally acceptable method of evaluating the severity of what may be very different impacts. For example, how one should evaluate health effects on children compared to elderly, or health effects on humans to damages to environment?
Nevertheless, some commendable attempts at comparing the dangers of energy technologies have been made. Among the more recent ones is a study commissioned by the European Union and performed by consulting company Ecofys. Known for its pro-renewable and anti-nuclear reports, Ecofys estimated the average so-called “external” costs of different electricity generation technologies in use within the EU. In this context, external costs refer to costs the energy generators do not have to pay, but instead “externalise” to the society as a whole.
The Ecofys study referenced here is not without its problems, but it nevertheless remains an admirable effort at evaluating the dangers of different energy sources on a level playing field. As we can see from the results, even the highest estimate for the dangers and costs of nuclear power comes below the costs of natural gas, and comfortably close to the costs of biomass use – whose radical expansion is one of the keystones of every non-nuclear energy scenario presented by traditional environmental organisations.
The low estimate, on the other hand, comes well below the impacts of solar power. That’s even when the impact of nuclear accidents is factored in.
If we take the Ecofys study at face value, we should probably conclude that the dangers of nuclear energy are on par with dangers associated with most forms of renewable energy. The dangers may be different, of course: renewable energy sources do not experience meltdowns, but they may emit considerable pollution during their construction or use. The end results, however, are similar: both acute and chronic illnesses to people exposed.
It should be noted that the findings of this Ecofys study are in line with findings of a review commissioned by Friends of the Earth UK: in the review of relevant scientific literature, the report concluded that
“Overall the safety risks associated with nuclear power appear to be more in line with lifecycle impacts from renewable energy technologies, and significantly lower than for coal and natural gas per MWh of supplied energy.”
To avert dangerous climate change, we will need lots and lots of low-carbon energy sources. Electricity is perhaps the most important of these, as it is wonderfully flexible form of energy that can replace fossil fuels in multiple applications. Furthermore, it is easy to deliver and we know how to generate it in quantity with very low carbon emissions.
Of all the methods of low-carbon electricity generation, nuclear power is still the single most important. It alone produces far more low-carbon electricity than all the “new” renewables combined. This is an inconvenient fact for those who try to oppose nuclear power while simultaneously opposing climate change. As a result, one hears constantly claims that nuclear power produces greenhouse gases – and that this makes it unsuitable for climate mitigation.
The first part of this claim is true: In fact, no energy source produces energy without greenhouse gas emissions of any kind. There are emissions associated with wind power, and there are emissions associated with solar power. The second part, the inference, is false, however. In all the serious research on the subject, the carbon balance of nuclear electricity is found to be very low. It compares well with wind power and, in fact, tends to be lower than that of solar electricity.
The most common counterargument we’ve heard at this point is the obvious: “Wait, what about uranium mining, or building of nuclear power plants? Surely they contribute a lot of emissions?”
Fortunately, we can say that this counterargument does not hold water. The figures quoted here, and in any serious scientific report, are so-called lifecycle emissions. This means that the figures already include impacts from mining, building of power plants, and so forth. In our opinion, it is somewhat insulting even to think that such obvious emission sources would not be included in any serious calculations.
But one thing that’s not included in these calculations is the additional infrastructure that is required to deliver equivalent level of service. For nuclear power plants, not much additional infrastructure is required, beyond obvious power lines. But if we want to deliver equivalent service – equivalent amount of reliable electricity generation – from variable sources, we most probably are going to need more infrastructure. This can be reinforced electricity grid to transfer energy from places where the wind blows or the sun shines to places where electricity is needed; it can be backup generators that provide power when it’s dark or calm; or it can be wind turbines and solar panels that are part of “overbuild” required to ensure that at least some catch the wind or the sun at all times.
So far, as the share of variable energy sources in electricity grid has remained small, this additional infrastructure is not really needed. The existing grid and existing power plants can cope with the limited variability, although this often incurs extra costs already. But as we expand our low-carbon energy production, we will need more and more infrastructure to cope with increasing variability. This causes both economic and environmental costs, resulting to higher carbon balance than these simple calculations would suggest.
This is one of the reasons why we believe that opposing proven solutions that can provide significant quantities of low-carbon energy is, at this point, a gamble with the climate. For more information, buy our book, Climate Gamble – or come to Paris during the COP21 climate negotiations and get one for free!
Even at this late hour, when we have mere 35 years to effectively end the burning of stuff for energy, there are some who argue against low-carbon energy generation. One of the more common arguments is that nuclear power plants take too long to build, and therefore they cannot help with the task.
This argument is patently false. While it may be true that building only nuclear may not be enough to stave off dangerous climate change, it is clear that nuclear is one of the best single technologies if we are really serious about combating climate change.
To wit, Exhibit A: historical long-term achievements of low-carbon energy, normalised to account for population differences. We used the widely available and generally reliable BP World Energy Outlook data to first search for the largest increase in low-carbon electricity generation over a 15-year window in each of the country covered; we then divided this increase with the average population of the country during the period.
As a result, we can see that nuclear power is surprisingly effective method for increasing low-carbon energy production. All the top spots in this graph belong to 1970s-80s era nuclear programs. Even the much-maligned Olkiluoto 3, the poster child of anti-nuclear movements worldwide, turns out to be faster than any attempt at wind and solar power combined.
Were we to normalise the results according to metrics that are even more relevant – gross domestic product (GDP) or purchasing power adjusted GDP per capita – nuclear power would look even better. The countries shown above succeeded in unprecedented and unequalled increase in low-carbon energy generation back in the day when they were much poorer than today, and significantly poorer than countries with high renewable energy ambitions. As the world’s poor continue to aspire for higher standards of living, this is an important point.
Of course, renewable installations have been growing fast. It is very possible, and very desirable, that some country will one day take the top spot in this chart with wind and solar installations combined. But it is not today; and we’re in a hurry.
One might also want to argue that the 15-year timescale is unfair: the largest increase in renewable energy has happened over the last decade or less. But decarbonisation is not a sprint, it is a marathon. Nuclear plants take time to plan and build, but permits and plans for renewable energy aren’t instantaneous either. We really need to take the long-term view; besides, had we selected the best five-year period (for example), nuclear energy would have won even more clearly.
All in all, we now need all the options at our disposal. At this point, anything else is a huge gamble with our climate.
In order to avoid dangerous climate change – a calamity that would disproportionately hit the world’s poorest and most vulnerable – we now need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions at a rate exceeding 3 percent per year for the next 35 years or more. This is a monumental task, to put it mildly.
Given the stakes, the need, and the short time available, one would assume the world leaders would take a look at historically achieved emission reduction rates. However, evidence suggests this hasn’t been happening. How otherwise should we explain that climate discussions still raise Germany’s Energiewende policies to the pedestal, while completely ignoring those countries who have actually managed to reduce emissions at or nearly at the rates now required?
This graph, based on CDIAC carbon emission database and World Bank statistics, tracks the history of per capita emissions and identifies the best 10-year period of emission reductions. As you can see, in this historical light the achievements of that paragon of climate policies seem more like dismal failure than an example to be followed. At least three countries (as well as additional examples such as Switzerland) have accidentally implemented better climate policies than what the “best” climate policy so far has delivered. Two of these, France and Sweden, have produced at least 80 percent of their electricity from low-carbon sources since 1990. This 80 percent happens to be the goal Germany is striving for – by 2050! What’s more, these policies were enacted against a backdrop of rising electricity consumption per capita, whereas German policy relies on ambitious energy saving schemes coming to fruition.
In every field imaginable, it would be very bad news indeed if accident and chance repeatedly delivers better results than the “best” policy promoted. We need to raise our voices to ensure policy-makers stop burying their heads in sand and take a hard look at the measures that have actually and repeatedly been able to reduce emissions at rates now required. Anything else is a huge gamble with the climate and our living world.
For more information, get our book Climate Gamble, either from online stores or by coming to Paris during COP21 negotiations where we’re handing out nearly 5000 copies for free.
About five thousand free copies of Climate Gamble will be handed out to negotiators and activists gathering in Paris for the COP21 climate negotiations. The authors behind this independent book phenomenon on climate gamble and its solutions, Rauli Partanen and Janne M. Korhonen, collected funds for this unprecedented print run through non-profit crowdfunding campaign. The essential facts are as follows:
The book lays out the scale of climate challenge, as understood by most recent scientific studies, and the scope of solutions proposed to mitigate the dangers. Through IPCC and other studies, the book shows that mitigation plans that rely on renewable energy and energy efficiency alone are highly unlikely to succeed in time: we now need all the options, including nuclear power.
The book also shows how the global anti-nuclear movement has consistently twisted and misrepresented the facts and even resorted to fabricated statistics as it continues its 1980-era battle against nuclear energy – despite all the evidence that the 21st century sorely needs all low-carbon energy sources possible.
Non-profit crowfunding campaign collected enough money to print about 5000 books, which will be handed out free of charge to interested parties in Paris between 28th November and 12th December this year.
Taken together, the independently written and published book has sold nearly 8000 copies in Finnish and English. French and Czech translations are scheduled to appear in 2016 as well.
“Our goal is to promote science and evidence-based energy and climate policy, and bring out the fact that climate change mitigation is most likely more difficult, risky and expensive if we do not use all the tools at our disposal – including nuclear power,” says Janne M. Korhonen. “The anti-nuclear argumentation is largely based on unscientific claims, cherry-picked evidence and studious aversion to fair comparison between different alternatives. We’ve researched the subject for years, and also prepared a manuscript for a more comprehensive work detailing climate mitigation options available with nuclear power. This book is scheduled to be published in Finnish in early 2016.”
According to the two authors, it is obvious that if humanity wishes to prevent dangerous climate change, it cannot be too selective about the methods required. All the feasible solutions need to be considered, and nuclear power has track record of rapid, effective emission reductions. To act otherwise and limit solutions based on outdated, mostly unscientific preferences is a foolish gamble with the climate.
“The reception we’ve had for our book in Finland and elsewhere has been extremely positive. The Finnish edition of 2000 books has been nearly sold out in little more than half a year after publishing,” notes Rauli Partanen, who earns his living as an independent non-fiction author. “The international version will see French and Czech translations soon, and negotiations are underway for a Swedish version as well. This is extremely promising, particularly considering the fact that our book is self-published.”
In Paris, the duo will be distributing the books as well as taking part in several events either as speakers or in the audience. They will also take part in filming of a documentary, network with international energy and climate researchers and activists, and try to meet up with perhaps the most famous climate researcher of the world – Dr. James Hansen. Hansen, alongside with his three colleagues, Drs. Tom Wigley, Ken Caldeira and Kerry Emanuel, will be in Paris to deliver very similar tidings as Climate Gamble: mitigating dangerous climate change will almost certainly require radical expansion of not just renewable but also nuclear energy.