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The Clean Energy Paradox

Originally published in The Warwick Engineer Freshers 2016 Issue.

Replacing carbon-based sources of energy with low-carbon sources is agreed to be one of the best indicators for long-term pro­gress towards emission reduction goals. In December 2015, as a part of the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Con­vention on Climate Change, 190 nations agreed that global warm­ing should be limited to below 2 degrees Celsius — above pre­industrial temperature — in order to avoid dangerous climate change.

As of June 2016, the global tem­perature is set to be the world’s highest on record. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admin­istration (NOAA) reported that the global land and ocean mean temperature for the time window January-June 2016 was 1.05 de­grees Celsius above the 20th centu­ry average (the pre-industrial age). Part of this record-breaking increase, NOAA states, is due to one of the most powerful atmos­pheric events in modern history; El Niño. Formed in 2015 and dis­sipated in May 2016 after domi­nating climate and weather patterns, it drove central Pacific Ocean temperature to record lev­els. This caused a particularly pronounced heat wave in the Arc­tic which resulted in early meltinG of the two biggest ice bodies in the world: the Arctic sea ice and the Greenland ice sheet. In fact, according to the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC), the Arctic sea ice cover could be confirmed to be the low­est ever recorded.

Despite all of this, we sometimes hear that we are in a so-called “clean energy revolution.” Ger­many sporadically gets half its power from solar, India has agreed to build ten times more solar plants than in California, which is home to a number of “world’s largest” solar facilities, by the year 2022. Perhaps most notably, Costa Rica once ran for 299 days solely on renewable en­ergy. Even nuclear is making a comeback; there are about forty different companies that are working together to build the first reactor that runs on waste, that cannot meltdown, and that is cheaper than coal.

At this stage, one question, cer­tainly, must start to press your mind: “How can we, at the same time, be in a clean energy revolu­tion and observe record-breaking climate change?” In short, we are not really in a clean energy revo­lution.

Yes, clean energy production has been increasing; nevertheless, the share of low-carbon electricity globally dropped by five percent­age points, from 38% in 1995 to 33% in 2014. For context, 5 per­centage points of global electricity is approximately equivalent to 60 nuclear plants the size of Diablo Canyon — California’s only opera­tional nuclear plant — which pro­duces 18,000 GWh. This was largely due to the reduction in nuclear power, which declined by 10% in absolute terms over the last decade. Now, one would ex­pect that this decrease would have been accommodated by an increase in renewable energy sources, like solar and wind; yet, their increase barely makes up half of the decline from nuclear power.

One of the countries to sign the Paris Agreement was the United States. As a step towards the goal stated in the agreement, President Obama agreed to cut total US greenhouse gas emission approxi­mately 27% below 2005 levels by 2025. However significant this short-term commitment might look like, it has been shown that it will not be sufficient to achieve the goal set in Paris. Indeed, the percentage reduction in domestic emissions would need to be 80% below 2005 levels. One of the reasons for the stagnation of low-carbon power as a share of US power generation is the result of, among other things, falling energy generation from one of the reasons for the stagnation of low-carbon energy: nu­clear power. Indeed, over the past couple of years, the US has prematurely retired several nuclear plants that were almost entirely replaced by fossil fuels, regardless of the fact that, as a report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has shown, nuclear power has a carbon footprint which is lower than solar.

However, we all know that nuclear power is not well regarded amongst the general population. In fact, as it was shown in a recent survey, nuclear power is the least popular form of energy. Granted, there are reasons why the general population might be wary of nucle­ar and those generally regard safe­ty and nuclear waste.

437 nuclear power plants are in operation around the world as of 2015. Even though severe nuclear accidents are uncommon, there have been 5, most notably Cherno­byl in 1986. Nevertheless, a new research article published in the academic journal “The Lancet” states, […] past experiences sug­gest that common issues were not necessarily physical health prob­lems directly attributable to radia­tion exposure, but rather psycho­logical and social effects”, mainly due to the unplanned evacuation and reallocation of endangered people.

Most people are aware of some of the medical applications, ranging from diagnostic tests to treating aggressive cancers, which regularly use radioactive materials. However, the medical industry has started to drop the name “nuclear” from its vocabulary; we now speak about “magnetic resonance imag­ing” instead of “nuclear magnetic resonance,” for instance. But the routine use of nuclear-related tech­nology does not start and end in medicine; modern manufacturing processes, agriculture and crimi­nology also make use of it, in ap­plications such as controlling thick­ness and density levels, pest con­trol, or creating high-sensitivity sensors and diagnostics to fight terrorism. We do not seem to mind this; yet, when it comes to terrestri­al nuclear waste disposal, we are completely ambivalent.

Allow me to say that more must be done in educating the general public about both the pros and cons of nuclear energy. Let us keep investing in solar and wind; how­ever, we ought to not forget, for the sake of the future of this planet, the role that nuclear energy can play in this climate crisis. Thus, if we are going to defeat climate change, we must keep in mind that its causes are not only to be found in our machines, but also in our­selves.

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