Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Vox author David Roberts starts well by pointing out renewable energy is not ready to power the world, and makes a passionate argument for increased funding of renewable energy innovation. But like a lot of greens, he completely ignores the nuclear option.
Many technologies needed to solve the climate crisis are nowhere near ready
Getting to net-zero carbon emissions will require rapid, radical innovation, a new report says.
Reaching global net-zero is necessary to stabilize the atmosphere at any temperature. Otherwise, it continues warming. “The difference between one and a half degrees, two degrees, and two and a half degrees [of warming] is functionally just the amount of time you have to achieve net zero,” says Julio Friedmann, an energy researcher at the Center for Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. Failing to reach net zero means failing to stabilize the atmosphere.
From an engineering perspective, the central question is whether the tools available are up to the task required of them.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has recently set out to answer that question, under the rubric of its Energy Technology Perspectives (ETP) program, which this month issued its latest Clean Energy Innovation report.
Many technologies that will be needed for deep decarbonization are nowhere near ready
The IEA begins by determining how ready current clean energy technologies are to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS), which would reach global net-zero emissions by 2070 and stabilize global temperature rise at 1.8°C (along with meeting several other sustainable development goals).
In the energy sector, IEA identifies four key approaches to decarbonization that are lagging technologically:
- Electrification of end uses, particularly heating and transportation
- Carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS)
- Low-carbon hydrogen and hydrogen fuels
Within those four approaches, IEA assesses more than 400 separate technologies. What is remarkable, and disheartening, is how few of them are on track to meet the SDS goals.
Disappointingly, the IEA executive summary does not mention nuclear power either, though nuclear energy receives several positive mentions in the main body of the report (available via the executive summary).
If climate change is such a desperate emergency, we haven’t got time to mess about with moonshots and high risk innovation gambles. We need to focus on a 1970s solution we know will work, not a 2070s solution which has not been developed yet, and which might never realise the hopes of proponents.
Going nuclear unequivocally works, because it has already been done. France proved in the 1970s you can convert from coal to nuclear. France has a good safety record, and they still get most of their energy from nuclear power plants.
Just copying the 1970s French nuclear programme worldwide, putting surviving 1970s French engineers in charge of a global nuclear mass production programme, going nuclear would knock at least 30% off global CO2 emissions in as little as one to two decades – far more than has been achieved by almost half a century of renewable energy efforts.
Even if you don’t understand climate science, or if you believe global warming is a major threat to the future of mankind, the widespread lack of climate activist enthusiasm for nuclear energy is the point where green arguments blatantly stop making sense.
A switch to nuclear energy would not have to be permanent. Even if the end goal is still renewable energy, going nuclear would buy the world the lifetime of the new nuclear plants, 50 – 90 years of ultra low CO2 emissions, loads of extra time to develop all those experimental renewable energy technologies.