A Conservative environmental choice

windmillgreen_earth_nuclear_atomThere is a provocative article in Foreign Affairs by “eco-pragmatist” Michael Shellenberger who was hailed as one of Time‘s “heroes of the environment” in 2008 which says that “Renewables Can’t Save the Planet—but Uranium Can.” He  begins by quoting renowned Czech-Canadian environmental scientist Vaclav Smil (a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada who, in 2010, was named by Foreign Policy as one of the top 100 global thinkers) who “stresses that any transition to renewables would take far longer than its most ardent proponents acknowledge. Humankind, Smil recounts, has experienced three major energy transitions: from wood and dung to coal, then to oil, and then to natural gas. Each took an extremely long time, and none is yet complete. Nearly two billion people still rely on wood and dung for heating and cooking. “Although the sequence of the three substitutions does not mean that the fourth transition, now in its earliest stage (with fossil fuels being replaced by new conversions of renewable energy flows), will proceed at a similar pace,” Smil writes, “the odds are highly in favor of another protracted process.”

Mr Shellenberger says that “In 2015, even after decades of heavy government subsidies, solar and wind power provided only 1.8 percent of global energy. To complete the transition, renewables would need to both supply the world’s electricity and replace fossil fuels used in transportation and in the manufacture of common materials, such as cement, plastics, and ammonia. Smil expresses his exasperation at “techno-optimists [who] see a future of unlimited energy, whether from superefficient [photovoltaic] cells or from nuclear fusion.” Such a vision, he says, is “nothing but a fairy tale.” On that point, the public is closer to Smil than to the techno-optimists. In the same 2014 Ipsos survey, 66 percent agreed that “renewable sources of energy such as hydroelectricity, solar and wind cannot on [their] own meet the rising global demand for energy.”

Canada was, in the 1960s, a global pioneer in the peaceful use of  nuclear energy for, inter alia, electrical power. The Canadian nuclear industry came under sustained attack in the late 1970s and early 1980s by, mostly, ill-educated environmentalists, often funded, Darlington-power-plantsub rosa, by competing commercial power generators (hydro-electric and coal fired utilities). The case for nuclear energy was not helped by political timidity in Ottawa and Toronto and inept management (1980s and 19990s) of the Darlington nuclear plants in Ontario. There is one significant political-environmental problem with nuclear power: how to safely store the nuclear waste for thousands and thousands of years. Canada plans to develop “deep geological repository in an area with suitable geology and an informed and willing host,” in different regions of Ontario. Canada has the technical know-how, the money and the institutional checks and balances to produce cheap, green nuclear power and to safely store the waste.

Michael Shellenberger is suspicious of the renewable energy movement because, as he says, “Almost every time a society has replaced one source of energy with another, it has shifted to a more reliable and energy-dense fuel. (The one exception, natural gas, has a larger volume than coal, but extracting it does far less environmental damage.) Replacing fossil fuels with renewables would mean moving to fuels that are less reliable and more diffuse.” We are, in other words, likely taking a step back from energy efficiency. “Many advocates of renewables,” he say, “argue that hydroelectric power can solve this problem. They suggest that upgraded dams could supplement the unreliable electricity from solar and wind power, yet there are not nearly enough dams in the world to hold the necessary energy. In a study published in June in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of energy and climate researchers found that the most prominent proposal for shifting the United States to completely renewable energy had inflated estimates of U.S. hydroelectric capacity tenfold. Without the exaggerated numbers, there is no renewable energy source to replace the power generated from the sun and the wind during the long stretches of time when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.

When he looks at energy return on investment Mr Shellenberger concludes that “Nuclear power is thus the only plausible clean option for developed economies.” This is one of the many “inconvenient truths” in the climate change debates that Canadian Conservatives should accept and make part of their policy framework. Nuclear energy is abundant, efficient and effective (“dense” in Vaclav Smil’s words) clean and safe. There is a place for renewable energy but it must be backed up by some other, stable, source: carbon based, hydro or nuclear. Even Canada does not have an unlimited supply of rivers that can be dammed, oil is a finite resource, and renewable energy (solar, wind, tidal power and so on) cannot, according to some experts, meet the demand, so … the case for nuclear power becomes more and more compelling, especially for Canada which is the second largest uranium producer in the world and, as already mentioned, a pioneer in nuclear power generation. Nuclear power should be an important part of a Conservative environment programme and should be part of a Conservative response to climate change for a vast, cold, dark country.



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