Your Fears Destroy Our Planet

By John Rhys28.05.2013Economics, Science

Germany’s irrational fears about nuclear energy have led to a resurgence of coal as an energy source. The cost of short-sighted policies: Long-term climate change.

Germany leads the EU in manufacturing and in engineering excellence. So it is disappointing that the policies of the “Energiewende” fail to confront adequately the biggest single global challenges of this century – securing low carbon sources of energy to fuel modern economies, while reducing CO2 emissions with urgency. Worse, it is moving in the opposite direction. Germany already has one of the highest per capita carbon footprints in the EU, largely driven by its use of coal. Phasing out nuclear will increase coal use significantly. Germany is building new lignite stations without prospect of carbon capture and storage (CCS). These are the worst possible policies from a climate change perspective.

Germany does not promote CCS, which would substantially mitigate coal emissions, apparently on the basis of safety issues. It is also foregoing gas, a second best in relation to low carbon generation, but far superior to coal. This reflects the higher cost of gas, but Germany places high reliance on expensive incentives for intermittent renewable energy to meet its “Green” CO2 objectives. This is a policy full of contradictions, in which the worst fossil fuel is preferred on cost grounds, at the same time as pursuit of expensive “Green” policies fails to offer a low carbon footprint.

Rationalizing risk

The core of this energy policy conundrum lies in comparison of the very different risks and dangers associated with nuclear accident, CO2 storage, and climate change. We all find rational and consistent consideration of risk difficult; the problem is accentuated by the emotional and political charge attaching to both nuclear and other environmental concerns. That makes rational comparison of the risks even more important.

Concerns on nuclear safety are real, and amplified by awful events such as Chernobyl and Fukushima; and technical and scientific evaluations of nuclear risk are controversial. But the 2005 WHO report on Chernobyl shows that even this was finite in its effects. British environmental campaigner George Monbiot took a similar view after Fukushima, changing from a nuclear-neutral to a pro-nuclear stance, and inter alia criticizing the wild exaggeration of the health risks of radioactive pollution. Risks associated with geological storage of CO2 are less well documented, and controversy is more recent. But there must be suspicion that these too have been exaggerated in pursuit of an illusory “no risk” future. The Monbiot view is not complacency. It is perspective.

Unfortunately for both nuclear and CCS we also know that if or when an accident were to occur, blame can be attached to a particular site and operator. Moreover the risk starts when the site starts to operate. It is therefore immediate in time and place.

The contrasting nature of the risks of CO2 emissions is very clear. Except perhaps to an increasingly shrill and isolated group of sceptics, the science could not be more definitive. The potential human and economic cost of unconstrained emissions is immense, and, in plausible worst case scenarios, catastrophic . But the effects are relatively long term not immediate. Moreover they are diverse in their impact and will never be attributable to a single plant or a single country. The problem is global both in scope and solution. Unfortunately these features of the risks encourage political responses that are both myopic and parochial, and oriented towards shorter term, locally visible, finite risks rather than climate change. Science also tells us that, since CO2 is essentially cumulative, current and early emissions are the most damaging. They promote earlier onset of climate change, with less time for adaptation. So the immediacy of the nuclear shut-down, and the failure to embrace gas as a second best solution, is particularly unwelcome.

A particularly unwelcome solution

The issue of carbon footprint, and especially through coal, corresponds to other economic imbalances in the world economy and the Eurozone. China has a substantial trade surplus in global terms just as Germany has in the Eurozone. These are perhaps the most important manufacturing economies in the world, but both retain very high dependence on the world’s most polluting fuel. This is pure coincidence, but we should in consequence expect to hear the very rational argument that part of the case for rebalancing trade is that it would reduce energy use and hence coal consumption in those countries. China, in contrast with Germany, has a large nuclear investment programme.

The UK faces the same emotionally charged choices over effective climate policies and over continued nuclear power, and analogous economic choices on costs and subsidies. For the moment its fragile consensus continues to favor positive action on climate, and acceptance of a new nuclear programme. Germany’s simultaneous capitulation to anti-nuclear prejudice and willingness to compromise on cheap high CO2 emissions coal, is therefore a disappointment to British supporters of EU ambitions to lead on climate change. Ironically Germany’s excellence in engineering means its nuclear power is likely to be as safe as anywhere in the world. The moratorium will mean, eventually, that more, less safe, nuclear is built elsewhere.

From this perspective, German policy, with a nuclear moratorium and a move to more coal but without mitigating CCS, seems short-sighted and parochial. It undermines the EU position on climate change issues, already weakened by the shortcomings of its flagship emissions trading scheme. It puts at risk Germany’s primacy in manufacturing (if the “external” or true global costs of pollution are ever internalised to tax the use of coal). It raises the probability of global failure to address climate issues, and ultimately leads to a less safe world.

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