What with most southern capitals facing severe water shortages and scorching summer temperatures already beginning to occur (I gather it was 37 in Adelaide yesterday), it’s an opportune time for passionate advocates of the Kyoto Climate Protocol to start ratcheting up the rhetoric. The Australia Institute’s Clive Hamilton, who knows money doesn’t buy happiness, says that “I think parts of Australia which are currently inhabited will be uninhabitable“, while NSW Premier Bob Carr released a CSIRO report commissioned by the NSW Greenhouse Office:
Mr Carr said the report found a worst-case scenario of a 70 per cent increase in drought frequency by 2030, and warned living in NSW could be akin to “living in an oven”.
Carr has been a long-time advocate of Kyoto and frequently talks about global warming. But you’d have to question his sincerity, as the Greens haven’t hesitated to point out:
About 50 protesters delivered a letter to Mr Carr through the gates of Government House asking him to stop the expansion of both coal mining and coal-fired power stations.
Greens MLC Ian Cohen said Mr Carr was being hypocritical by hosting the conference because the government had approved construction of five new coal mines for NSW, as well as the expansion of eight existing mines.
But the Greens are just as hypocritical about global warming as Carr. Neither they nor Carr are prepared to countenance let alone actively push for the only solution that would make any real difference to global warming, namely a major acceleration in construction of nuclear power plants to take the place of fossil fuel-burning plants. It’s an expedient that green guru James Lovelock of “Gaia” fame at least has the honesty to acknowledge.
The stark reality is that there is no other current or reasonably foreseeably-available large-scale energy source that would have any significant effect on reducing greenhouse emissions. Solar and wind power are both more expensive on average than nuclear, and in any event could only ever meet 10-20% of the world’s energy needs at most. Tidal energy has considerable potential in some limited areas, but its total potential is much less than 10% of world energy needs.
Hydrogen fuel may conceivably have larger-scale potential, but the extent is uncertain and it’s at least 10-20 years away, which on the more alarmist global warming scenarios may be too late. Moreover, there is a considerable energy requirement to produce hydrogen fuel in the first place, so in some respects it really begs the greenhouse question (although it may be a useful medium to transport energy from places where it can be efficiently and cleanly produced).
John Howard also made great play of the potential for sequestration of carbon from coal-generated power stations in a fairly recent statement. But the practicality and cost of any such solution is speculative at best. Again it’s at least 10-20 years away and would almost certainly make coal a significantly more expensive energy source than nuclear.
As I said, nuclear energy is the only existing, mature technology able to meet the world’s energy needs without boosting greenhouse emissions. Moreover, it’s increasingly competitive at least with gas and oil in view of recent price movements.
Given the alarmist scenarios painted by Hamilton and Carr, why aren’t both of them actively advocating nuclear energy if they really believe what they’re saying? In Hamilton’s case, I suppose the answer’s easy. He thinks materialism is a curse anyway, so gutting and filleting the western capitalist economy would serve a dual purpose for Clive. Carr’s attitude is both more equivocal and less consistent. Quizzed about it on Lateline a couple of nights ago, he neither supported nor opposed it, but mumbled about the difficulties of waste disposal and nuclear non-proliferation, and said people were nervous about it in light of Chernobyl!
But waste disposal is eminently manageable using a variety of technologies including Australian-developed Synroc, and non-proliferation raises no problems that don’t already exist. Proliferation of weapons-grade material can readily be prevented if the necessary international will exists. Indeed safe disposal (e.g. in a Synroc lattice) would of itself also largely resolve the proliferation problem as well.
It’s difficult not to conclude that Carr is just playing cynical politics with global warming, or that greenies like Hamilton have a hidden agenda of beggaring the world economy to further a crazed vision of “back to mother earth” neo-hippiedom. Anyone who takes the threat of global warming seriously would at the very least be attempting to stimulate public discussion on the issues surrounding nuclear power. Hence this post.
Of course, there’s also the problem of safe operation of nuclear plants (as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island graphically illustrate). But few experts (and not even Bob Carr) doubt that nuclear plants can be built and operated in complete safety with current technology. What will be needed is International Atomic Energy Agency supervision of both construction and operation of all nuclear plants, especially in third world countries that might otherwise be tempted to cut corners to save money (or as a result of corruption). Governments of advanced economies should seriously consider offering large subsidies to third world countries to go nuclear, as long as they submit to close ongoing IAEA supervision. Such an expedient would make major inroads into the biggest shortcoming of the Kyoto Protocol, namely that it has no effect whatever on third world countries where all the growth in greenhouse gas emissions is occurring. That’s the main reason why Kyoto would only have a miniscule effect on global warming, even if the US and Australia were to sign up. Even strong advocates of Kyoto merely argue that it’s a good symbolic start. Well, in view of the increasing evidence on the existence and scale of the global warming problem, and the long time lags between action and effect, that’s just not good enough. It’s time to get serious about the nuclear option