Home News Germany’s confounding climate move to opt for coal over nuclear power

Germany’s confounding climate move to opt for coal over nuclear power


Politics and passions, doomsdayism and denialism aside, climate change largely boils down to this one: energy. To avoid the possibility of catastrophic climate change, while ensuring that the world can continue to grow—especially for the poor living in areas of chronic energy scarcity—we need to produce more from sources that emit little or no greenhouse gases energy.

It’s that simple – and of course, it’s that complicated.

In recent years, the capacity of zero-carbon renewables such as wind and solar has increased significantly and prices have fallen significantly, while the decades-old hydropower technology is still called the “forgotten low-carbon energy giant” by the International Energy Agency. Carbon Electric. ”

Then there is nuclear energy. Strictly from a climate change perspective, nuclear energy can be called a green dream.

Unlike coal or natural gas, nuclear power plants do not emit carbon dioxide directly when generating electricity, and they have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 60 gigatons over the past 50 years. Unlike solar or wind power, nuclear power plants are not intermittent and require far less land area per megawatt of production. Unlike hydropower, which has reached its natural limit in many developed countries, including the United States, nuclear power plants do not require environmentally intensive dams.

As the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents have shown, when things go wrong with nuclear power, it can really go wrong. But newer power plant designs reduce the risk of such disasters, which themselves are often more of a concern than the steady stream of deaths from climate change and air pollution associated with the normal operation of traditional power plants.

So you might imagine that those who see climate change as an unparalleled existential threat would cheer the development of new nuclear power plants and support the expansion of those already in service.

In practice, however, this is often not the case, as recent events in Germany have highlighted.

When is green not green?

Russia’s war in Ukraine has roiled global energy markets, but perhaps no country is more vulnerable than Germany.

At the beginning of the year, Russia’s exports supplied more than half of Germany’s natural gas, while it also imported a significant portion of its oil and coal. Russia has severely restricted gas supplies to Germany since the start of the war, leaving the country in a state of severe energy crisis, with fears growing as the next winter approaches.

With the country’s own gas supply so low and its heavily backed renewable energy sector unable to fully cover the shortfall, Germany’s leaders face a dilemma. To keep enough gas reserves to keep the country through the winter, they could try to delay the shutdown of Germany’s last three remaining nuclear reactors, which were due to shut down by the end of 2022 as part of Germany’s turn against nuclear power after the Fukushima accident, and even restarts have been shut down the reactor.

Or they could try to restart mothballed coal plants and make up for some of the power shortage with Germany’s still ample coal reserves.

Based on carbon emissions alone, you might choose the nuclear option. Coal is by far the dirtiest fossil fuel, accounting for one-fifth of total global greenhouse gas emissions — more than any other single source — as well as large amounts of traditional air pollutants. Nuclear energy does not produce these.

German lawmakers take a different view. Last week, the country’s parliament, backed by members of the Green Party in the coalition government, passed emergency legislation to reopen coal-fired power plants and take further steps to boost renewable energy production. There will be no effort to restart shut down nuclear plants, or even reconsideration of the timetable for shutting down the last active reactor.

“By winter, the gas tanks have to be full,” Robert Habeck, Germany’s economy minister and member of the Green Party, said in June. “That’s our top priority.”

Partly as a result of this priority, Germany — which has seen carbon emissions rise over the past two years and failed to meet its ambitious emissions targets — will emit more carbon in 2022.

To be fair, restarting a closed nuclear plant is more complicated than lighting up an old coal plant. Plant operators have only bought enough uranium through the end of 2022, so the nuclear fuel supply will run out anyway.

But that’s also the point. Germany, which sees itself as a global climate leader, is grabbing the most carbon-intensive fuel source, in part because of its decision in 2011 to abandon nuclear power entirely, incorporating a planned phase-out into nuclear power laws.


Nuclear power is far from risk-free, as accidents in Fukushima and elsewhere have demonstrated. Dealing with radioactive waste remains a challenge, and the industry as a whole tends to delay production of new plants, often billions over budget.

But no energy source is completely safe, and nuclear energy compares favorably with other energy sources because it has no emissions. According to one estimate, nuclear power produces 99.8 percent fewer deaths per unit of electricity than coal, 99.7 percent less than oil, and 97.6 percent less than natural gas. It’s roughly the same standard as wind or solar, with the ability to generate reliable baseload electricity that those sources lack.

Arguing, as climate activist Greta Thunberg did it in a tweet Earlier this month, nuclear power could never be considered “green,” an implicit sign that your fear of nuclear power trumps your fear of climate change. If this becomes the norm, the climate will pay a price.

Fortunately, this fear is losing some of its appeal in other parts of Europe and around the world. Thunberg’s tweet was in response to the European Parliament’s decision to label investments in nuclear power plants as well as low-carbon natural gas as “climate-friendly”. Unlike Germany, Belgium has decided to keep two reactors scheduled to close, while France has announced plans to build as many as 14 new reactors. Even in Japan, which suffered its worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, support for restarting and expanding nuclear power is growing.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the Biden administration is spending billions to subsidize existing factories, while states like New York and even California are seeking to keep factories that were scheduled to close.

However, for nuclear power to do more than gain a foothold, it also needs to overcome existing safety concerns and larger cost concerns. A new report from the Breakthrough Institute, an energy and environment think-tank, predicts that in the medium term, a major investment in advanced nuclear reactors – which could be smaller and more cost-effective than existing nuclear plants – could generate as much as half of the U.S. clean electricity generation – century and a great complement to growing renewable energy sources.

Better nuclear energy could also play an important role in another less-appreciated challenge: achieving energy abundance. Since the mid-1970s, per capita energy consumption in the United States has remained largely stable or even declined, a product of the shift toward conservation and efficiency. As long as our energy mix is ​​dominated by fossil fuels – which despite significant progress in renewables still is – that’s a good thing.

But some experts have linked slow productivity growth over the past few decades to stagnant energy consumption. When we incorporate energy consumption into our diets, it’s no surprise that productivity and economic growth follow.

If we can separate energy consumption from carbon emissions and other environmental externalities, we can carve a path to true abundance. Vertical farming, large-scale desalination, direct carbon air capture – they will all become more viable if we have truly low or zero carbon energy, as nuclear was once touted by some, “too cheap to measure” “. Achieving this future — tackling climate change while providing enough energy for all our needs — will require better, broader nuclear power, and policies to accelerate the development of clean energy of all kinds.

Existential threats require survival responses.If that’s how you look at climate change, there’s no excuse Give up a viable option – nuclear power is clearly the option.

A version of this story was originally published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up for a subscription here!

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