Not 100% renewable, but 0% carbon

5 04 2017

635906686103388841-366754148_perfection1Anyone familiar with this blog and our work on energy issues will not be surprised by my sincere support of nuclear power as the only realistic solution to climate change in the electricity (and possibly transport and industrial heat) arena. I’ve laid my cards on the table in the peer-reviewed literature (e.g., see here, here, here, here, here & here) and the standard media, and I’ve even joined the board of a new environmental NGO that supports nuclear.

And there is hope, despite the ever-increasing human population, rising consumerism, dwindling resources, and the ubiquity of ideologically driven and ethically compromised politicians. I am hopeful for several reasons, including rising safety and reliability standards of modern nuclear technology, the continued momentum of building new fission reactors in many countries, and even the beginnings of real conversations about nuclear power (or at least, the first steps toward this) in countries where nuclear energy is currently banned (e.g., Australia). I’m also heartened by the fact that nearly every conservation scientists with whom I speak is generally supportive, or at least non-resistant, to the idea of nuclear power as part of the climate change solution. An open letter by our colleagues attests to this. In fact, every day that passes brings new evidence that we cannot ignore this solution any longer.

Even despite the evidence in support of implementing a strong nuclear component into climate change-mitigation strategies, one of the most frequent arguments for not doing so is that society can achieve all of its energy needs and simultaneously combat climate change by constructing 100% renewable-energy pathways. While it is an easy mantra to repeat because it feels right intrinsically to nearly everyone with an environmental conscience, as a scientist I also had to ask if such a monumental task is even technically feasible. Read the rest of this entry »

Australia’s motto: “Screw the environment!”

2 09 2015
Mmmmm! I love coal!

Mmmmm! I love coal!

An article originally posted on ALERT by April Reside (with permission to reproduce).

The Conservative Tony Abbott government in Australia is proposing alarming changes to Australia’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999 — a remarkable move that would prevent environment groups from challenging many damaging development projects.

This has all come to a head over the Carmichael Coal Mine — a plan to build a massive mine in central Queensland in order to export 60 million of tonnes of coal to India each year.

Coal, of course, is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, and India’s plan to burn it by the shipload for electricity is bad news for the planet.

The Abbott government is in a tizzy after after a community organization, the Mackay Conservation Group, challenged the approval of the Carmichael Mine in Australia’s Federal Court.

The community group says Environment Minister Greg Hunt didn’t properly consider the impact the mine would have on two threatened species, the yakka skink and ornamental snake.

The mine site also sustains the largest population of the southern subspecies of the black-throated Finch, which is endangered.

The implications of the mega-mine go well beyond a few imperilled species. If the mine goes ahead, it will be one of the biggest in the world — and the emissions from burning its mountains of coal would cancel out all gains made from Australia’s current emissions-reduction strategy.

On top of the frightening precedent it would set, the Abbott government appears to be double-dealing. Read the rest of this entry »

Australians: out-of-touch, urban squanderers

23 03 2015

There’s a romantic myth surrounding Australia that is pervasive both overseas and within the national psyche: this sun-scorched continent home to stoic bushmen1 that eek out a frugal, yet satisfying existence in this harsh rural land. Unfortunately that ideal is anathema to almost every Australian alive today.

While some elements of that myth do have a basis in reality – it is indeed a hot, dry, mostly inhospitable place if you count the entire land area (all 7.69 million square kilometres of it), and it does have the dubious honour of being the driest inhabited continent on Earth – most Australians live nowhere near the dry interior or the bush.

Despite our remarkably low average population density (a mere 3.09 people per square kilometre), Australia is in fact one of the most urbanised nations on the planet, with nearly 90% of its citizenry living within a major urban centre. As a result, our largely urban/suburban, latte-sipping, supermarket-shopping population has little, if any, connection to the vast landscape that surrounds its comfortable, built-up environs. There should be little wonder then that Australians are so disconnected from their own ecology, and little surprise that our elected officials (who, after all, represent the values of the majority of the citizens they purport to represent), are doing nothing to slow the rapid flushing of our environment down the toilet. Indeed, the current government is in fact actively encouraging the pace of that destruction. Read the rest of this entry »

Eye on the taiga

24 03 2014

boreal damageDun! Dun, dun, dun! Dun, dun, dun! Dun, dun, daaaaah!

I’ve waited nearly two years to do that, with possibly our best title yet for a peer-reviewed paper: Eye on the taiga: removing global policy impediments to safeguard the boreal forest (recently published online in Conservation Letters).

Of course, the paper has nothing to do with cheesy Eighties music, underdog boxers or even tigers, but it does highlight an important oversight in world carbon politics. The boreal forest (also known as taiga from the Russian) spans much of the land mass of the Northern Hemisphere and represents approximately one quarter of the entire planet’s forests. As a result, this massive forest contains more than 35% of all terrestrially bound carbon (below and above ground). One doesn’t require much more information to come to the conclusion that this massive second lung of the planet (considering the Amazon the first lung) is a vital component of the world’s carbon cycle, and temperate biodiversity.

The boreal forest has been largely expanding since the retreat of the glaciers following the Last Glacial Maximum about 20,000 years ago, which means that its slow progression northward has produced a net carbon sink (i.e., it takes up more atmospheric carbon that it releases from decomposition). However, recent evidence suggests that due to a combination of increased deforestation, fire from both human encroachment and climate change, mass outbreaks of tree-killing insects and permafrost melting, the boreal forest is tipping towards becoming a net carbon source (i.e., emitting more carbon into the atmosphere than it takes up from photosynthesis). This is not a good thing for the world’s carbon cycle, because it means yet another positive feedback that will exacerbate the rapid warming of the planet. Read the rest of this entry »

Energy policy – substance wins over style

4 02 2013

happy nuclearThere’s a gradual, but rising tide of rational, enviro-progressive scientists out there who are committed to solving some of the world’s biggest problems. Many of these problems involve touchy subjects, including ways to reduce poverty while improving or maintaining high standards of living elsewhere, the means for ‘sustainable’ electricity generation, and how to limit the human population’s over-consumption and over-production.

Inevitably, however, many well-intentioned, but grossly misinformed environmentalists (‘enviro-conservatives’?) object to technical solutions based on emotional or ideological grounds alone. As self-professed enviro-progressives (but also scientists who base decisions on evidence, logic and balancing trade-offs as part of our everyday work), we hope to reduce this backlash by providing the data and analyses needed to make the best and most coherent decisions about our future.

On 14 September 2012, Japan’s government announced a nuclear-free policy to phase out its nuclear power generation by 2040. Of course, electricity demand would have to be supplied by both renewable energy and fossil fuels to respond the public unwillingness for nuclear power.

But is this most environmentally sound, safest and economically rational aim? In a new paper we’ve just had published in the peer-reviewed journal Energy Policy, we set out to test Japan’s intentions the best way we know – using empirical data and robust scenario modelling.

Before the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Japan produced 25% of its total electricity consumption from nuclear power, 63% from fossil fuels (mostly coal and liquefied natural gas), and 10% from renewables (including hydro). Originally, the Japanese government had planned to increase nuclear power up to 45% of supply, and include new renewables builds, to combine to make major cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and meet or exceed their Kyoto targets. However, the original plan could reduce emissions by the energy sector from 1122 Mt CO2e in 2010 to < 720 Mt CO2e by 2030 (< 70% of 1990 emission levels). Read the rest of this entry »

Who’s responsible for climate change? Not ecologists, right?

19 06 2012

It’s sometimes difficult to take a long, hard look in the mirror and admit one’s failings. Today’s post is a thought-provoking challenge to all ecologists (indeed, all scientists) who gaily flit all over the known universe in the name of science. I’m certainly in one of the upper guilt echelons on this issue – and while I tell myself each January that “this year I’ll fly much less frequently”, I usually end up breaking my resolution by month’s end.

In some defence of my sins, I have to state that while I should always endeavour to fly less, I am convinced that strategic, well-planned (and usually small) meetings are some of the best ways to advance scientific ideas. As CB readers might know, I am particularly impressed with the results of dedicated workshops in this regard.

I also think that even if all aeroplanes suddenly fell from the sky and one could no longer enjoy that transcontinental G & T, we’d still be in a terribly climate-change mess – we need BIG solutions beyond simple consumption reduction.

Now I’m just making excuses. Thanks again to Alejandro Frid for providing this challenge to me and our colleagues.

Recently I asked a math savvy graduate student at Simon Fraser University, in Western Canada, to proofread an equation. ‘No problem’, she replied, ‘but could you wait a few days? I am about to fly to Korea for a conference but I will return shortly.’

Hmmmm? So this is what the system promotes: gallivanting halfway around the world and back within a week, burning extraordinary amounts of fossil fuels, all in the name of scientific career advancement. Who are the climate change culprits? Not us ecologists, right?

Of course I am being unfair to Ms. Maths Savvy. Most of us are equally guilty of boarding that big ol’ jet airliner in the name of scientific meetings or the pursuit of ecological knowledge in far off study sites. Yet the inconvenient truth, according to a recent editorial in Nature Climate Change1, is that “international air travel accounts for about 5% of global warming”. Flying all over the world in the name of ecology and conservation therefore implies that we believe that (i) there are no alternative means to accomplish the same goal with far less emissions, and (ii) that the benefits of our work outweigh the atmospheric impacts of flying. Think again.

For insight into these issues, I interviewed Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester and arguably the climate conscience of scientists. I was attracted to Anderson’s perspective because of its blunt honesty. He calls air travel “…the most emission profligate activity per hour”2 and has little patience for the irony that “international climate jamborees”, otherwise known as climate science meetings, have contributed far more to increasing carbon emissions than to any meaningful action on climate change. His recent commentary in Nature3 makes it amply clear that buying carbon offsets when flying may ease our perceived guilt but not emission rates. Read the rest of this entry »