Time to decide
As countries gather in Marrakesh to consider how to focus efforts on achieving the objectives of the Paris agreement, it is worth taking a minute to cut through the relentless optimism and wishlist planning, and take a hard look at the facts.
First, the intended national contributions to cutting back emissions are insufficient to meet the objective of holding global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Centigrade over the course of this century. The UNFCCC acknowledged this in a review of the INDCs last year and it has since been confirmed by several reputable international agencies.
Second, there was no coherent plan to achieve this objective other than asking countries to present their individual prosposals and asking them to adhere to the vague concept of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ to reduce carbon emissions. Without any coherent guidance by the UNFCCC, the predictable result is that almost every country that submitted an INDC structured their proposal in a different way: using different timeframes, starting points, and ways of defining emission reductions (some specified a percentage reduction with respect to an earlier year, others proposed a reduction with respect to a business as usual forecast trajectory, while others offered absolute values). The result is a hodge-podge of proposals that are difficult to align, compare and aggregate.
Third, the focus on mitigation has obscured the fact that for many small developing countries and particularly for the group of Small Island Developing States (the SIDS), mitigation is a waste of time and money because their emissions are negligeable. The total combined CO2 emissions of all 51 small island States is less than 1 percent of global emissions. The UNFCCC’s insistence on mitigation distracts the SIDS from the urgent priority of identifying and implementing adaptation measures that may enable them to resist the worst impacts of climate change.
Fourth, the most effective way of reducing carbon emissions was never explictly proposed, let alone mandated. Since the major part of CO2 emissions result from the combustion of fossil fuels, it should be obvious that the absolute priority is for countries to drastically limit and eventually eliminate the combustion of fossil fuels to generate electricity and to power vehicules and locomotives. The technology to do this is well known, fully tested at scale, and cost-effective. Photovoltaic electricity, wind power, and electric vehicles are all technologies that have shown that they can be deployed at scale right now, and with an immediate and measurable impact on carbon emissions.
The only way that global temperature increases are going to be kept within reasonable bounds is by driving CO2 emissions down as low as possible. This means generating electricity without pumping carbon into the atmosphere. There are only two ways to do this. One way is to use renewable energy–which has no carbon emissions. The other way is to produce energy from fossil fuel resources and then capture and store the carbon. This sounds like a reasonable proposition until you realise that no-one knows how to do this, and the concepts being considered are all literally science fiction. So the choice is between technologies which we know work well: renewable energy–and carbon capture technologies which have never been shown to work at scale anywhere in the world.
The other problem with carbon capture and storage technologies is that we will have to live with the same mess of pipelines, oil rigs, fracking sites, strip mines, oil trains, petroleum refineries, liquified natural gas terminals, and tar sands, that have so polluted the planet for at least the last 150 years, and which have killed and poisoned so many people. The air pollution associated with the combustion of fossil fuels doesn’t end if carbon capture technology can be made to work. The combustion of fossil fuels in power plants and automobiles generates particulate pollution, heavy metals, and oxides of nitrogen that each year are directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds and thousands of people across the planet. This massive death toll doesn’t end with carbon capture and storage.
Muck and brass
The choice between these two paradigms is so stark that it ought to be astonishing that that a definitive choice has not yet been made. Until you realise the enormous wealth of the oil barons, the fossil fuel magnates, and the coal tsars, and the self-serving influence they wield with politicians and policymakers and those who will decide which road shall be taken.
There was an expression I used to hear in England when I was young: “Where there’s muck there’s brass”. In those days muck was only a cartload of mangled lead pipes and copper wire, all pulled along by a bone-tired horse. The brass gained at the end of the day was only a couple of quid. But now there are huge amounts of money at stake and the fossil fuel warlords are not about to give ground.
Is there space here for nuclear power? The smaller-scale modular reactors with new, intrinsically safer, technology look like an attractive option. They can, in principle, produce reliable base load, emission-free, power at minimum cost. However, these are technologies that, although characterized by a near-zero risk of failure, have catastrophic impacts if failure occurs. With climate change causing extreme weather, violent storms, storm surges, and coastal flooding, and with the frequency of earthquakes and tsunamis seemingly on the rise, who would bet their life that failures will never again happen? The world has aready witnessed catastrophic accidents at nuclear power plants. These were not supposed to happen. The probability of these accidents occurring was calculated at near zero. Almost zero. But not zero enough.
The way ahead is clear for those who chose to look forward. There is muck and brass in a stiflingly hot world. Or there is a clean future on a cooler planet.