Overthrow of New King Coal

Published in The Guardian, on 16th January 2008.

The energy analyst: It may have been a tough decision to take, but the government has got it badly wrong

The government’s case for reviving a moribund nuclear industry turns significantly on nuclear’s role in avoiding dangerous climate change – the most important issue facing humanity. We live in a highly-stressed world as the planet’s population continues to grow and become more affluent, and anxieties about the calamitous collision beginning to occur as exploding demand for food, water and energy meets declining availability are rising rapidly. Climate change stresses all these stressors.

This is not just another environmental issue, remote in time and place in its effects. It is what former US national security adviser Sandy Berger called an “existential problem”. It threatens the security and prosperity of every single person living in Britain.

Last year, European governments agreed that avoiding dangerous climate change meant keeping the eventual temperature rise below 2C. Since we have already seen a rise of just over 0.7C and cannot now prevent another 0.7C rise, there is not much room to manoeuvre.

To succeed, global emissions must peak by about 2020 and decline by 80% by 2050. It is often overlooked that this is a decline in total greenhouse gas emissions, including not just those from burning fossil fuels but also the emissions resulting from agriculture, deforestation and other land-use changes. Since these are very difficult to control, this means we must make the global energy system carbon neutral by 2050.

No one should underestimate the scale of this challenge. It dwarfs anything humanity has ever attempted. Furthermore, there is no time to learn from our mistakes. If we fail, we cannot – as humans have traditionally done – go back and try again. This puts a very high price on policy failure.

At first sight, the need for a carbon neutral energy system by mid-century makes the government’s case for nuclear power even stronger. It means that we must move to all-electric homes and also to highly electricity-dependent transport systems. The carbon emissions from hundreds of millions of gas boilers and oil-fuelled vehicles cannot be captured and stored.

A climate-safe world will be an overwhelmingly electric world. That electricity can come only from three sources: renewables, nuclear, or fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage. Wind power alone added some 15 gigawatts (GW) of new capacity last year – significantly more than the 2GW added by nuclear.

But even on current projections, which do not take account of the need to make a huge shift to electricity, coal is the overwhelmingly dominant fuel for electricity generation. China is building coal-powered stations at the rate of 2GW a week, and the world will add more than 1,400GW of coal from such stations by 2030 just to meet existing projections of increased demand.

Nuclear cannot replace this coal. China has the world’s most ambitious nuclear programme. If they build all the 40 planned reactors by 2030, it will still only produce 4% of their electricity. The rest will come from carbon-intensive coal. Globally, simply to replace the existing reactors as they end their lives, 58 additional reactors will need to be built by 2015, and a further 168 by 2025. Since the current construction rate is about one reactor a year, there is no prospect of nuclear power helping to meet the challenge of climate change by reducing the emissions from coal.

The arithmetic is clear. The coal will be burnt. But we know what we need to do to make this coal burn carbon neutral: we must install carbon capture and storage on all new and existing coal plants. It will not be cheap, but it is an imperative, not an option.

The decision to help revive Britain’s nuclear industry may have been “tough”, but it was also wrong. The right tough decision would have been to install carbon capture and storage on the recently announced coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth in Kent.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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