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It is important to note that making solar, wind and batteries requires enormous amounts of energy which is currently mostly provided by burning fossil fuels. As a result rapid expansion of these technologies is actually accelerated greenhouse gas emissions. This explains why burning of fossil fuels is now at record levels ever despite record expansion of solar, wind and batteries.

Expanding nuclear might be slower because of the time taken to build these plants, but it is not energy intensive and so will not cause a big spike in fossil fuel use. It will should result in much faster declines in greenhouse gas emissions. Historically, expansion of nuclear power has been by far the fastest way to reduce emissions associated with electricity production.

https://www.dropbox.com/scl/fi/5lerrj0g1n5tvl88vklbb/Science-2016-Cao-et-al.pdf?rlkey=9avyiws5vj9v36q1fqhwh2k28&dl=0

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While I agree that nuclear power has its place and needs to be developed, we simply cannot wait for it to be developed and implemented on a scale necessary to reduce emissions. In the U.S., it will be 15-20 years before nuclear from advanced nuclear reactors can help reduce emissions.

The life-cycle emissions (g CO2 eq / kWh) of electricity sources have been assessed by various organizations around the world. These studies include the energy and emissions involved with production and manufacturing. One of the most complete assessment and comparison of various sources was completed recently by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, https://unece.org/sites/default/files/2022-08/LCA_0708_correction.pdf .

I direct your attention to Figure 56 on pg. 66 and Table 14 on pg. 68. Nuclear does indeed have one of the lowest life-cycle emissions, but solar and wind are very comparable.

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Oct 3, 2023·edited Oct 3, 2023

It is misleading to claim that nuclear needs development. We have known how to build incredibly safe reactors for decades. That is why nuclear has such an outstanding safety record, and is by far the safest form of reliable energy.

The problem is that regulations implicitly value a life lost to radioactivity 100-2500 times more than a life lost to other forms of pollution like air pollution. This has made building nuclear slow and expensive and, paradoxically, makes people fear it more. People assume that strict regulations are required because radioactivity is extremely dangerous. This disproportionate fear is harmful. Analysis of the Fukushima and Chernobyl disaster impacts showed that by the greatest harm was done by FEAR of radioactivity. This fear drove the west to abandoned new nuclear in the previous century and resulted in coal being used instead. That accelerated climates change and killed millions of people. These regulations on radioactivity are paradoxically killing people.

That data on wind and solar exclude the impact of required storage and additional transmission lines. It also excludes the vast amount of waste, some of it forever toxic, produced by wind and solar. Nuclear produce very little waste and this waste has never done any harm in the history of civilian nuclear power.

The biggest problem with wind and solar is longer term intermittancy - winter for solar in high latitude countries and long windless periods for wind. There is no affordable technical solution to this problem. Batteries are orders of magnitude too expensive. Hydrogen is unproven and also very inefficient.

These are the reasons that no country has come close to zero emission for electricity using mainly wind and solar. Only countries with reliable clean energy like hydro, geothermal and nuclear have succeeded.

Also, in every country scaling up solar and wind electricity prices have risen substantially in line with renewable penetration. This is because of hidden costs of intermittent low density power sources. This will make net zero very difficult as we need to electrify as much energy use as possible. Switching from fossil fuels to electricity requires electricity prices to come down. This is achievable with nuclear power as it has been done before. The article below shows how the by far the fastest reductions in emissions were achieved with programmes of building nuclear power plants. There is no reason this cannot be repeated. https://www.dropbox.com/scl/fi/5lerrj0g1n5tvl88vklbb/Science-2016-Cao-et-al.pdf?rlkey=9avyiws5vj9v36q1fqhwh2k28&dl=0

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Oct 3, 2023·edited Oct 3, 2023

The U.S. electric sector has reduced its emissions by 40% since 2000 without expansion of nuclear power. I live in New Mexico and we have reduced our emissions by 50% by replacing coal with natural gas and wind and solar. It is fruitless to complain about past decisions regarding nuclear power. France made the decision in the 70’s to adopt nuclear, i.e. “No coal, no gas, no oil, no option but nuclear.” The question that confronts the world today is what is the best and most realistic way to get from where we are today to net zero. Experts agree that we need some form of firm, dispatchable power to support intermittent renewables. Nuclear may well be part of that solution but we have the technology we need right now to make progress in reducing emissions.

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Oct 3, 2023·edited Oct 3, 2023

Almost all that reduction was the result of the replacement of coal burning with burning of natural gas which became available because of fracking. Fracking was vigorously opposed by environmentalist, by the way, and still in. It is banned in many states and many countries in Europe, and coal is used instead.

I fully support the switch from coal to gas or nuclear and gas to nuclear. Both have been shown to be very effective ways to reduce emissions rapidly without increasing the price of electricity. This is CRUCIAL because only by decreasing electricity prices can we decarbonise processes that currently use fossil fuels.

By all means carry on building solar and wind if it makes people happy. But please take note that there is NO example of successful decarbonisation with mainly solar and wind. It is technically impossible at present because we have no viable storage system and it may never be possible.

So maybe we should start building nuclear as we KNOW this works?

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Oct 3, 2023·edited Oct 3, 2023
Oct 3, 2023·edited Oct 3, 2023

The notion that solar PV and wind are the cheapest source of energy is based on a deep misunderstanding or fraud. Take your pick. The core argument is to use the levelled cost of electricity (LCOE) calculation to compare costs. This uses the cost of building, maintaining and fueling the generating facility and the output of electricity over its lifetime. For nuclear power plants the LCOE is artificially high because of the regulatory barriers, the high cost of private capital and the short lifetime used (40 years - most reactors can last for 80+ years). What LCOE does not include is the cost of dealing with intermittency and upgrading/expanding the grid. Nuclear does not add these costs. The intermittancy of solar and wind requires either 100% backup generation on permanent standby or long-term storage. Both are very expensive and the cost increases exponentially as you approach 100% penetration. There is no affordable storage technology, which is why all credible net zero plans require a high level of dispatchable energy on permanent standby. If that is fossil fuel driven one needs to add the cost of carbon capture and storage to the costs of solar and wind to get to net zero. The low energy density of solar and wind requires a large expansion of the transmission grid. This is hugely expensive and very, very slow.

If the dispatcahble backup is nuclear it is feasible but that raises the question as to why not just build nuclear! Then you do not need a duplicate energy generating system and there is no need for storage or grid expansion.

There are many experts who agree with me but accept the reality that solar and wind are so popular and nuclear so unpopular that it is politically easier to just build solar and wind and wait until energy prices get to absurd levels that justify building nuclear, despite its unpopulary. My fear with this dishonest approach is that the sky-high energy prices will make the whole net zero plan deeply unpopular and may even discredit it so that we just continue burning fossil fuels.

But we shall see. I am a patient man.

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Your links are all political posturing, and moreover they are all fantasies, talking about "technology demonstrations" and such. "It is possible." "We can." Well, we aren't, and sadly the weight of inertia is immense.

Timothée Parrique has taken the time to go through one set of similar reports by the IPCC, combing the cited references to see what they really say. His findings are very revealing. They expose these scientific-looking documents as propaganda, the political defence of the status quo that they really are. (That's my conclusion; he does not say that in so many words.)

This is not to say that it's not worth doing all the things proposed and more. It's worth treating AIDS and Hep C, even if the patient remains addicted and keeps using. The patient will live a bit longer.

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We need to start building more nuclear right now but there doesn't seem to be any urgency from anyone about it like there is for solar/wind. Even with streamlined regulations they still take years to build though one hopes SMRs or even LMRs can be much faster, especially if built on existing coal/fossil plant sites with transmission infrastructure in place.

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No-one is going to build while solar and wind continue to get implicit subsidies. It is a money losing operation.

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Except for Ontario and China. Maybe others?

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Don't fear nuclear energy, fear climate activism and renewable energy?

Well, it doesn't upset any climate science deniers but as long as nuclear advocacy remains politically aligned with the Doubt, Deny, Delay politics that keeps the largest bloc of support locked away behind it's Wall of Denial (no climate problem equals no need) people who are truly concerned about it won't be able to see past the insincerity. We will support renewables by default, because they do work, cost effectively. They are not going to spell the end of economic prosperity - that sounds a lot like alarmist fear, greatly exaggerated.

If the pro-business Right won't have nuclear as their climate policy because global warming is real and they believe nuclear is the best solution they aren't going to do it because of anything anti-nuclear climate activists say or do. And it is the successes of renewable energy that is breaking the stranglehold of Doubt, Deny, Delay on climate politics. Whether the support base for nuclear can come out from behind the Wall of Denial on climate remains to be seen but when they do they may well choose to support renewable over nuclear. What isn't going to happen - without a persistent failure of renewables to thrive - is abandonment of renewables.

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The article raises a key aspect of net zero, so thanks for that. Slight reservation though regarding one of your last sentences saying that "economic growth and emissions reductions are not incompatible". To be accurate, it should read "economic growth and emissions reductions are not incompatible although insufficient to reach a goal that is good enough to meet the Paris Agreements". There is a relatively long economic literature showing the limits of decoupling, which is often temporary, not caused by systemic changes but rather by external causes (hence its temporary aspect), or no where near fast/drastic enough in order to respect goals sufficient to maintain a liveable planet.

For example Hubacek et al (2021) conclude that these countries (the countries of the economic North you talk about in your OWID article) “cannot serve as role models for the rest of the world” given that their decoupling “was only achieved at very high levels of per capita emissions”.

All in all, the following article better presents why and how the examples we have of decoupling are not enough (or not related to genuine Green Growth) than I will ever do, and is extremely thorough and methodical, so I encourage you to read it:

https://timotheeparrique.com/decoupling-in-the-ipcc-ar6-wgiii/

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And, in concentrated form, his 10 minute talk at the Beyond Growth conference in the EU Parliament https://youtu.be/rojLAkVhWas?si=cAoQBZh0i55CTG1y

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Oct 3, 2023·edited Oct 3, 2023

Hannah: As always, I appreciate your clear explanations of many of the issues and trends with climate change. Your explanation clearly illustrates why end goals are not the only issue with CO2 emissions. However, in making your case, you've glossed over some important nuance.

As I suspect you know, the success or failure of any policy decision cannot be measured by a simple before/after split. (ie: we had X CO2 emissions/year before the policy went in, which got lowered to Y CO2 emissions/year after the policy). What actually matters is the change in the trend slope (Ie: emissions were going down X% a year before policy, and now are going down Y% a year after policy). Supporters of goverment intervention are very fond of citing before/after splits as evidence of their success, whilst the evidence is often dubious when the change in the trend line is considered.

In the specific example we're talking about here, your "reduce early/delay action" graph clearly makes the point that CO2 emission reductions sooner is better than later. However, the graphs in no way represent what is likely to happen.

As you yourself have pointed out in previous posts, electric car adoption seems to be growing much faster than previously projected. Solar panel costs have dropped 99.5% in the last 50 years (due of course to the "learning curve" effects you refer to in your articel). In short, whilst I can't prove (because none of us can fully predict the future), I suspect that your "reduce early" curve is in fact much closer to what's likely to happen, regardless of goverment policy.

Which then leads me to ask: what exactly are you advocating for with respect to goverment policy?

Personally I am deeply cynical about any goverment policy. Indeed, your observsation that long term goals are incompatible with 4 (ish) year election cycles is simply evidence about why government policy is rarely a good solution to long term problems (or often, any problems). I suspect that technology will beat policy almost always. Solar will keep gettting cheaper & better, it will become more and more attractive to individuals who will buy because it saves them money, not because of any stated goverment policy. More solar will in turn make electric cars more attractive. And so on in a technology/economic driven virtuous cycle to better and better tech, and less and less CO2.

As in so many government policies (no matter what the country), I'd personally advocate for "go away and leave me alone" as the best goverment policy. About the only place I can see goverment having a positive role is funding basic reasearch (with the proviso that research results then become public as well since the public are paying for them).

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Great piece however I feel we can place no comfort in decoupling of GDP from environmental damage, not only because the scale of decoupling in the countries you quote is slow but that the majority of countries are nowhere near this, nor can they be whilst we in rich countries fail to support them in the transition to clean energy.

At current emissions the world has ~10 years of carbon budget left for even a 50:50 chance of +1.5C and when you build in equity provisions many rich nations have 3-5 years left.

Just as, if not more, important though is the failure to decouple resource & material use from economic growth. Climate change is just one of the planetary boundaries we are overshooting, the other 5 in overshoot are impacted by our overuse of, and pollution from, material & resource use.

The obvious solution therefore is to curtail or drastically reduce unnecessary and polluting industries and activities. For example, is it really our goal to continue to build & fly private jets with green energy and fuel, or would the energy/fuel not be better used to build and fuel activities that benefit human and environmental wellbeing, or not actually be used at all?

Non-essential products & services rule the lives of most people in the Global North and are negatively impacting, if not killing, those in the Global South. Our priorities should revolve around doing what's necessary for the health and wellbeing of humans and nature regardless of how that impacts on a number in a government spreadsheet. In the words of Kate Raworth, "We have economies that need to grow, whether or not they make us thrive, whereas what we need, certainly in the rich countries, are economies that make us thrive, whether or not they grow"

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Without growth in GDP net zero will never be reached. Who defines what is an unnecessary industry? If an industry has customers willing to pay for its products or services then it is by definition at least desired if not necessary. Can I decide that the vegan food industry is unnecessary because domesticated animals exist and are plentiful, do I then get to prohibit it? Private cars? Ride a bicycle or horse. What about entertainment, should music be banned as unnecessary? Solar energy was necessary only for spacecraft when it was developed, so you (a socialist, fascist or totalitarian governments) would ban it. This is the way to death and despair, and much more frightening than a 1.5°C temperature rise.

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Hi Buzen - poorer nations must have growing economies to raise living standards and, yes, we need to increase production (GDP) in say renewables and other industries needed for decarbonisation but damaging industries such as fossil fuels must be reduced asap.

If you consider the suggested ways in which we should reduce our carbon and ecological footprints in energy, heating, transport, agriculture & food it logically follows that we will need to spend less and this will have a direct impact on GDP.

There are also a couple of issues around GDP that make it a useless measure for prosperity. Firstly, who gets it? Over the last decade about half of all the new wealth created globally has ended up in the hands of 1% (in the 2 years to Dec 21 it was 63%). And what do they do with it, there are only so many yachts & private jets you can buy? It’s wasted.

Secondly GDP doesn’t differentiate good & bad/wasted activities, so a tree only becomes part of GDP when it’s cut down, not when it’s planted and selling more cigarettes raises GDP as does the increased healthcare in treating lung cancer (ditto selling oil and cleaning up oil spills).

Growth in GDP comes from growth in energy, materials and resources, as well as growth in the pollution they cause. Other than cancer, nothing in nature tries to grow forever, at some stage we have enough and can sustain ourselves in balance with what the planet and nature can cope with.

As to what else, other than oil/gas/coal, should be reduced, we know which products and services are most damaging to the environment and our health, do we need more jets, yachts, SUVs or IT that’s designed to last 3 rather than 10 years? Non-essential goods & services were evidenced in Covid, it’s not rocket science (and that’s another we can put on hold).

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Your episode of More or Less was excellent!

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Hello. First of all thanks as always for this interesting post.

But I'm sorry to disagree on this phrase: "The role of rich countries is to invest in these technologies early when they’re more expensive, to drive down costs for the rest of the world."

If you sell it like that, no country is going to take the first step. We already have the example of solar, where Germany gave the first step and now China is the one making big money, because the move was done more as what you said (someone has to take the first step for the bigger cause) and less as an investment to position your country as a leader of a new tech.

A big chunk of money will be needed to develop the tech we need to deal with climate change, and we should treat it as the needed investment that it is. Not as a charitable project, which is how it sounds when you explain it like that :)

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Great article as always! Quick note, the first footnote has a typo at states "Liz Truss lasted less than 2 months from early September to the end of October 2023." 2023 should be 2022 :)

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It seems that our "countries" don't know by themselves where to go, only energy providers compagnie are giving their will and wishes when the various government simply seems to really follow these companies will/wishes. For sure the weather situations since several years is different, the CO2 seems to have some different values, even if I think we must have or create an "index" or similar item to include the various gazes having environmental negative effects, like CH4, SF6 and others...

But. This is not all, the crisis we are having since several years and the various power politics are making very big changes, look at the kind of technologies wd are using, not the most commercially available, lot of the wind turbines manufacturers are in the red. The interesting Thing is that there is not lot of areas where we can add new wind fields. Replaced by far more footprint hungry solutions, less efficient solar fields, don t talk about hydrogen, nice ideas but slowly only added for large conservative companies, usually based on petroleum technologies when far more efficient solutions like NemoRenSys exist, modular underwater gravity based, far better capex, open but no one seems willing to...too different? For sure away of classical ways, it is not efficient to put everything on CO2 linked. But so easygoing... we are far too conservative mainly because investors are dinosaurs and ultraconservative but. Look what happened to Dino's.... they will realize when it will be too late. And probably with the wrong tools...

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Oct 4, 2023·edited Oct 4, 2023

Economic history would tell us to expect wind turbine manufacturers to be in the red.

It happened with toll roads in Elizabethan times. It happened with ports and canals. It happened with railways. It happened with coal mining, steelmaking, radio, cinema, car makers, shipbuilding, airlines. It happened with water and town gas supply. I don't know about electricity supply, but I'd bet that in the early days there was a big shakeout and most providers were unprofitable for a while. Mergers and acquisitions, all that jazz.

It seems to have been more common than not with new widespread technologies that there was a period of one or more decades in which profits were meagre or nonexistent. This time probably isn't different. That does not mean that turbines are a fad, or that we've reached the limit of deployment. Far from it.

We'll have to talk about hydrogen. Can't decarbonise long-distance airplane and ship fuel, metal smelting, fertilizers, industrial chemicals or plastics without doing so. This is where government should be putting its money, basic research for hydrogen production.

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