Insights for Flourishing: An Incommodious Question: Can Renewable Energy Tackle the Existential Threat?

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Figure 1. Percent Change in Emissions of CO2 to the Atmosphere. Data obtained from www.OurWorldInData.org.

“On Day One, President Biden fulfilled his promise to rejoin the Paris Agreement and set a course for the United States to tackle the climate crisis at home and abroad, reaching net zero emissions economy-wide by no later than 2050. … Climate change poses an existential threat.”

– April 22, 2021 White House FACT SHEET.

As America and the world prepare for the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP 26) Climate Change Summit—scheduled for November in Glasgow, Scotland—I wish to take stock of what has been accomplished over the past three decades to tackle the climate crisis. From this historical perspective, setting a course of action for the next three decades will come into sharper focus, providing a vision that offers hope.

First, a little history of what has transpired till now.

Work on weaning the world away from fossil fuels formally got underway in 1988 with the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

1992 was a landmark year. The world’s nations adopted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  The UNFCCC established a framework for negotiating treaties (referred to as Protocols) to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Since the inaugural gathering at the “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro held in June of that year, nearly two hundred countries have signed onto the UNFCCC and pledged their support.

The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 was another major milestone. Although not compulsory, countries pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to specified targets.

The Paris Climate Accords of 2015 put more teeth into the Kyoto Protocol. Legally binding, the Paris Agreement committed countries to drastically reduce emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere so as to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, and preferably to less than 1.5 degrees.

So, how well have we done holding CO2 at bay?

In 1992, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere topped out at 360 ppm. In May 2021, its level surpassed 419 ppm for the first time in human history. This relentless rise in CO2 is a direct result of ever-increasing consumption of fossil fuels.

In fact, annual emissions of CO2 to the atmosphere have grown by more than 60 percent since 1992, the year the UNFCCC was adopted (See Figure 1).

This much is clear. What we have been doing isn’t working. No matter how well intentioned, current policies and practices have not put us on a course to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

To illustrate why emissions keep rising, I will focus on the three countries that emit the most CO2 to the atmosphere—China, India, and the U.S.

As shown in Figure 1, CO2 emissions by China and India both have shot up more than 250 percent!  In America, emissions in 2019 are essentially the same as they were in 1992.

In quantitative terms, the world’s annual emissions have ballooned by 14 billion metric tons over this timeframe, from 22.44 to 36.44 billion metric tons. The single biggest emitter is China. Its annual contribution of CO2 to the atmosphere has mushroomed from 2.65 to 10.17 billion metric tons.

So even if America were to suddenly achieve net zero and stop emitting 5 billion metric tons of CO2 per year, annual emissions worldwide still would have increased by nearly 9 billion metric tons!

For the past thirty years, the world as a whole has been heading in the wrong direction. What about future trends in energy and CO2 emissions?

Energy generation and consumption continue to grow rapidly across the globe, with no signs of leveling off (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Worldwide Energy Consumption (in terawatt-hours) by Fuel Type. Data obtained from www.OurWorldInData.org.

Growth in energy consumption around the world is occurring primarily thru increased burning of fossil fuels. This trend, which began with the Industrial Revolution, has accelerated since World War II.

Renewable energy—solar, wind, biofuels, etc.—has grown enormously since the 1970s.  Nevertheless, despite generous government subsidies, huge reductions in equipment costs, and decades-long PR campaigns to “go green,” solar and wind provide only a few percent of the world’s energy needs. Fossil fuels remain king.

Here is a major reason why this remains the case. While it is true that China has the largest capacity of installed renewable energy technologies and India is home to the world’s largest solar park, both these countries generate roughly 70 percent of their electricity from coal.

Coal mining in China and India is on the rise. China is the largest coal producer in the world. India is second.

In America, power generation using coal is diminishing as mines are closed, old coal power plants are decommissioned, and no new coal plants are being built.

The opposite is true in India, which plans to increase the number of its coal-fired power plants in operation. Last year, China astoundingly built more than one large coal plant per week—triple the amount of new coal power capacity of all other countries in the world combined. Looking at the near future, the number of new coal power projects underway in China is five times higher than all other countries in the world combined.

Based upon these realities on the ground, projected growth in world population, and rising demand for energy per person in the developing nations, there is no plausible course of action to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 using renewable resources alone.

To illustrate why this is so, consider this. The 2.25-gigawatt Bhadla Solar Park is the largest solar power plant in the world. Construction of this solar park, situated on 14,000 acres in the Jodhpur district of Rajasthan, India, took five years to develop. To replace current levels of fossil fuel energy production with solar energy, the world would need to build one or more solar parks—comparable in size to Bhadla—each and every day of the year, from now until 2050!

As is the case with Bhadla, the world’s ten largest solar plants are located in deserts or semi-arid regions.  Unlike highly reflective desert sands, solar panels are dark and absorb most of the sunlight that reaches them. Only about 15 percent of sunlight striking their surface is converted to electricity.  The rest of the absorbed solar energy is radiated as heat from the hot solar panels into the local atmosphere. Consequently, Bhadla has been transformed into an urban-like heat island.

Replacing fossil fuels requires building thousands of Bhadlas. Unintended consequences to regional and perhaps even the global climate may result from building so many scorching solar parks of this magnitude.

This course of action is neither prudent nor possible, especially when considering world demand for energy is forecast to increase by 40 percent by 2050.

In conclusion, we are in a very uncomfortable position. This is the Incommodious Truth I wrote about in this paper 6 years ago. And it is even more true today. Despite great strides in energy conservation, energy efficiency, and deployment of renewable energy technologies, America is NOT dealing effectively with the self-declared existential threat to our economy, the environment, and our very way of life.

Am I recommending throwing up our hands and giving up transitioning to renewables? No, not at all. But if we truly are facing an existential threat, and we must rapidly achieve net zero carbon emissions to stave off this threat, then mustn’t we look beyond solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, and hydroelectric power? The transition to renewable energy is happening too slowly. Are we not therefore compelled to consider non-renewable energy sources that do not emit CO2 to the atmosphere?

The answer to this incommodious question is yes. The course we set to tackle the climate crisis must include generating more electricity by nuclear power, deployed on a large scale both at home and abroad.

I am not suggesting building plants in the fashion of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, or Fukushima.  I advocate deployment of smaller, fail-safe plants that use abundant, mildly radioactive thorium as the starting fuel in lieu of highly radioactive uranium.

Thorium itself is not capable of nuclear fission and is not readily weaponizable. It is energy-rich, containing a million times more energy per pound than coal. Better still, these efficiently-designed power plants have a much smaller ecological footprint and they generate a lot less hazardous radioactive waste per unit of energy produced than do their older counterparts. They can be built in a factory where lower costs and higher standards of quality control can be achieved. Furthermore, they can be deployed without making major investments in supporting infrastructure at the site.

Yes, many of us feel uncomfortable about nuclear power. As an environmental scientist, I get it.  But the incommodious truth is, if we truly have a climate crisis brought on by burning fossil fuels, we need to pursue other viable energy options. After decades of experience, the present course of action has shown renewables simply are not up to the challenge. A quote from Indian scholar and ecofeminist Vandana Shiva is apropos to the issue at hand “The biggest crisis of our time is our minds have been manipulated to give power to illusion.”

Embracing reality and promoting nuclear power will take courage and leadership. Will Americans step up to the challenge and lead the way? Only time will tell. 

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