Saturday, 21 November 2009

Action (and nuclear) still required

As reported by the ABC, a typical Australian emits more carbon than any other person in the developed world. We are setting a very dangerous example and worse providing very low hanging fruit for any country or political leader seeking justification to strive for our comfortable lifestyle via increased emissions. We have a moral and ethical obligation to take significant action to reduce our emissions, in addition to the climate signals repeatedly knocking on our door.

From an April 2007 UN meeting (What's happened since then?)

The ABC report does contain some seemingly good news; that emissions have dipped slightly due to the financial crisis. However, this may provide a false sense of security and is certainly no cause for celebration for anyone expecting serious cuts by 2020, 2030 and/or 2050.

Emissions per unit GDP (carbon intensity) is another relevant metric. According to the US Government, Energy Information Administration, Australia / New Zealand’s carbon intensity ranks third in the OECD (behind Canada and South Korea). One wonders how Australia’s ranking would move if we were judged on our own. Carbon intensity is dropping, but if tangible action is not completed to reduce it further along with emission cuts per capita (i.e. if ‘real’ emissions are not cut considerably), any economic recovery will stress the climate via emissions increases.

If one reviews the two tables within the EIA page linked above, it can be seen that emissions per unit GDP continue to decrease – China and India are the best performers, as one would hope. However, emissions per person actually increase out to 2030 – here China is the worst performer and Australia/New Zealand only drops by 0.2%. However, both GDP and population increase over that time. Therefore, real emissions will increase in Australia and around the world; which in turn will lead to climate disaster according to Hansen, Brook and many, many others.

And there is tangible evidence that our real emissions will indeed rise. It can’t be any clearer than the two large fossil energy projects currently proposed in NSW. If these plants go forward, it will mark a significant failure to seriously cut Australian emissions. Their mere proposal should be a wake up call to anyone genuinely interested in climate change, emission cuts or Australian leadership in the upcoming climate negotiations. Australian energy policy falls short of delivering the energy security our economy requires and emission reductions we are obligated to achieve; for Australians at home and the world at large.

A serious national debate on holistic approaches to significantly cut our emissions is desperately needed. The debate must go beyond the fulfilment of campaign promises and it must recognise and address the risks posed from climate change – particularly for Australia. These risks must be compared in an objective and balanced context against those of nuclear power.

For example, climate scientist and blogger Prof Barry Brook is linking recent weather events to climate change. Consider that just one Australian bushfire resulted in over 3 times the fatalities than the immediate impact of the worst ever nuclear accident at Chernobyl (a flawed design that would never be built today). Furthermore, within a typical 5 year period, deaths from coal mining accidents in China alone exceed the projected long term death count from Chernobyl. One must question the true aim of modern anti-nuclear campaigners who seemingly care about public safety at home or abroad.

Nuclear waste issues are indeed a challenge that must be addressed, but the world has repeatedly demonstrated the ease of storing high level spent waste in interim facilities until permanent solutions can be implemented. The good news here is that there is really no rush, unlike action to curb emissions which is becoming more urgent with the passage of time. There is also the very real possibility that spent nuclear fuel could be consumed as a fuel source in fourth generation reactors.

Certainly, proliferation must be managed. This need has been recognised by both the Rudd and Obama administrations, among others. Collaborative efforts have been stepped up in recent years as has the IAEA budget in line with calls for enhanced nuclear security by IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei. Again, fourth generation reactors include a prerequisite design criteria to mitigate proliferation risk through either the consumption of plutonium or the blending of high radiation fission products into the fuel to make physical protection an inherent property of the fuel.

Economic anti-nuclear arguments (too expensive, too long) often conviently assume nuclear as a stand-alone emissions reduction technology as opposed to one of a suite of technologies deployed in parallel between now and 2050. In Australia, we have been led to believe we are ‘blessed’ with renewable, conservation and efficiency options that are more rapidly and more cost effectively deployed. Great! Then deploy them and let’s get those two fossil projects in NSW cancelled.

Without tangible evidence that non-nuclear actions will achieve the necessary cuts, the allocation of additional resources to the problem is justified. There is evidence from, say large renewable deployment efforts in Europe, to suggest a non-nuclear strategy challenges the ability of a nation to achieve significant emissions cuts (see this story on anti-nuclear Austria’s Kyoto target performance vs. its EU peers).

With respect to the timing, there is additional evidence that nuclear project implementation performance improves with experience. Citing the current projects in Finland and France is counterproductive since they are early implementations of a First-of-a-kind third generation design. As experience is gained, the implementation of this design will improve just as second generation design project performance has over the past few decades, particularly in Korea and Japan. For more details on modern nuclear plant construction – refer to this post.

The justification to keep nuclear power off the table in Australia is simply not there. In fact there is considerable, objective evidence to the contrary.

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