Climate Change: Canada’s and The World’s Efforts Are Not Adequate
Posted April 12, 2019
Released last week, Canada’s Changing Climate Report continues the parade of releases documenting in ever greater detail the expected impacts of climate change.
The scientists involved are always torn between a professional responsibility to dispassionately report the facts and a hope that their words will motivate citizens and their political leaders to make real progress on reducing carbon emissions. So far, it is not working.
Temperatures are rising, especially in the north. Sea levels will rise because of glacial melts and because water expands as it warms. Warmer oceans will make for more violent storms. Some areas will receive more rain; others will experience more droughts.
Selling the need for countries to act vigorously now is an enormous political problem. The benefits of taking action are shared equally by those who don’t participate. The threatened consequences of not taking action are a long way off.
Canadians are not repelled by the prospect of warmer winters, less snow to shovel, and longer growing seasons.
The Americans were providing some leadership under President Obama and the economically driven switch from coal to natural gas has produced some wins for carbon reduction. Now, Trump provides comfort to those who deny that there is a problem.
Meanwhile, China’s paltry promise is to have its emissions peak no later than 2030.
Many countries talk a good game but do little. Canada is one of them. There has been meagre progress on our commitment to reduce carbon emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030, and the current carbon tax will not make much difference.
Perhaps the most engaged advanced economy is Germany, which achieved close to 40% of its electricity through renewables in 2018. But Germany still relies heavily on fossil fuels.
Demand for electricity will continue to grow. There will be more electric cars. The amount of new air conditioning will greatly exceed the drop in demand for heating.
Developing nations will need more power to up their standard of living. To match China on a per capita basis, India will need to quadruple its capacity. Two thirds of India’s electricity comes from fossil fuels.
Wind turbines and solar farms are the primary opportunity for expanding renewable energy. They require a lot of space, and many countries have limited available land. South Korea has 50 million people in a space less than twice the size of Nova Scotia and has no prospect for importing electricity. Landlocked Rwanda’s 12 million people are equally crowded. India is almost as crowded.
In the face of such pressures, the need for global action is urgent, but one would not know it from the tepid response. Oddly enough, most environmentalist organizations are part of the problem.
Consider the renewable technologies available today, and the entirely logical presumption that crowded developing countries aspire to rich country living standards, requiring much more electricity. If that is the case, the only way to contain and then reverse the direction of carbon emissions is through rapid increases in nuclear power.
Nuclear has issues. Building costs are high and hard to control. Disposing of spent fuel is difficult. Big accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima are exceedingly rare but seriously destructive when they happen.
Nevertheless, the vast majority of plants operate without issues for decades. There are about 450 around in 31 countries and dozens more are under construction. France was an early adopter and gets 70% of its electricity from nuclear plants. Ontario gets almost 60% and is using it to phase out coal.
Greenpeace and the Sierra Club are among the many environmental groups which reject the notion that nuclear has a role to play in combatting climate change.
It was Germany’s Green Party which, after Japan’s Fukushima disaster, insisted that Germany phase out nuclear power by 2022, replacing it with gas, dirty coal, and dirtier lignite.
The big carbon emitters are not committed to needed reductions. For that to happen may require repeated and unprecedented events: serial inundations of Miami, Manhattan, Shanghai, Rotterdam; thousands of fatalities in multiple countries from heat waves; crop failures due to droughts.
When the nations of the world get serious about climate change, the need for expanding nuclear power will become clear.
Canada’s efforts should go beyond controlling our own carbon emissions. We can share our nuclear power capabilities with densely populated countries, look for ways to accelerate the northward movement of the tree line, and plan for a possibly massive influx of climate refugees from places no longer able to control flooding.
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