The inspiration for this post was the Fall 2019 issue of The Nature Conservancy Magazine, which included the article, “A More Sustainable Path to 2050”. Quick summary:

  1. Global temperature increases would be limited to just 1.5°C and additional air pollution would drop 90% if 85% of the world’s energy were shifted to non-fossil fuel sources.

  2. Total crop area would decrease by roughly a million square miles and crop area in water-stressed regions would shrink by 30% if crops were relocated to the areas they grow best, “ making it possible to feed a growing population using less land, less water and less fertilizer.”

  3. Wild fish stocks would rebound with the elimination of overfishing though sustainable management for all wild fish stocks.

Note that the Nature Conservancy is not pushing a transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050. That’s because they count nuclear energy as a viable and clean non-fossil fuel source. I assume the folks at the Nature Conservancy agree with their colleagues at the Environmental Defense Fund in arguing that nuclear has to be part of the world’s energy mix if we want this century’s rise in global temperature to stay below 2 °C. Specifically, a third of the mix:

_2019 Sustainable Path to 2015 TNC.png

I agree with both environmental organizations that nuclear needs to be part of the mix. Committing to 100% renewables by artificial deadlines entails prematurely channeling scarce resources to technologies that aren’t ready for full-deployment, because they don’t come close to achieving the scalability and reliability needed to replace fossil fuels. At least not yet. And resources spent on implementing an immature technology are resources unavailable for the development of better technologies. Not to mention the waste of even more time and money due to the sunk cost effect:

“The sunk cost effect is the tendency for humans to continue investing in something that clearly isn't working. Because it is human nature to want to avoid failure, people will often continue spending time, effort or money to try and fix what isn't working instead of cutting their losses and moving on.”

More R&D on renewables is needed before the big roll-out, not only to improve the technologies but to have a better understanding of the potentially harmful effects of their widespread implementation. Consider, for instance, the negative impact of solar and wind farms on local wildlife or the recent discovery that wind farms actually have a warming effect. Should we really just jump on the 100% bandwagon, full-steam ahead, without doing our due-diligence?

Besides, opposition to nuclear is irrational. Nuclear is clean and sustainable. A typical nuclear plant in the US requires about a square mile to operate. To produce the same amount of electricity as a nuclear facility, wind farms require 360 times more land area and solar photovoltaic plants require 75 times more space - to the great detriment of local biodiversity. And the amount of land off-limits due to nuclear waste is tiny: according to one estimate, all of the used nuclear fuel produced in the US over the last 60 years could fit on a football field at a depth of less than 10 yards. Let’s triple the estimate to three football fields and it’s still a lot less land taken out of bio-circulation than what ramped-up wind and solar would entail.

Of course, safety concerns about nuclear facilities should be taken seriously. However, the dangers of nuclear technology have been greatly exaggerated, especially given the development of safer technologies and smart modular reactors. More US loggers and commercial fishermen lose their lives every year than the total number of people who have died from nuclear accidents. Also consider the hundreds of thousands of lives that would be saved if the world had more nuclear energy facilities - simply because an expansion of nuclear would accelerate the closure of toxin-spewing coal plants. Renewables aren’t ready to take on Big Coal. Nuclear is.

At least China, the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal, hasn’t been paralyzed by the forces of ideological darkness. They are moving ahead with the nuclear option:

China’s nuclear hiatus may be coming to an end

China plans small nuke reactors to replace coal and gas use

Starting in 2018, China will begin turning coal plants into nuclear reactors

There is hope for humanity and the planet yet.