The bad news. Right now, gigantic wildfires are burning across Siberia and the Artic Circle that are larger than all the other record-setting fires raging around the world this summer combined. The massive blazes in Russia are fueled by extreme heat waves, unusually high winds, and record-setting droughts attributed to climate change. The Western United States and Canada are combatting large wildfires also fueled by extreme heat waves and record-setting droughts, as is Southern Europe. On the other end of the spectrum, last month extreme flooding ravaged Western Europe and China, and China is facing another round of extreme flooding right now. These events have killed hundreds in China and Western Europe—and displaced thousands more.
The worse news. So when the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its sixth assessment report (IPCC Report) on August 9, 2021 saying that climate change is widespread, rapid, and intensifying, it likely came as no surprise to anyone. What was surprising, however, was how confident the report was in its key messages, including the following:
- Climate change is humans’ fault. It is “unequivocal” that human activity has caused global warning, causing rapid and widespread warming of the atmosphere, ocean, and land.
- Climate change is happening faster than we thought. Global warming was happening faster than previously anticipated, and global surface temperatures will continue to increase unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.
- World carbon dioxide levels are at an all-time high. Carbon dioxide levels were greater in 2019 than they had been in at least two million years. Methane and nitrous oxide levels, the second and third major contributors of warming respectively, were higher in 2019 than at any point in at least 800,000 years.
- Changes like this to the climate system haven’t happened in thousands of years. The scale of recent changes across the climate system is unprecedented—going back hundreds and thousands of years as to global surface temperature, Arctic ice area, and rise of sea level.
- Every place on the planet is being affected right now. Climate change has impacting every region of the world. Evidence of observed changes in extreme weather includes heatwaves, heavy rains, droughts, and stronger tropical storms, just since the last IPCC Report seven years ago. Many changes in the climate system have become larger in direct relation to increasing global warming—making these already intensifying events ever more intense.
- Many changes cannot be reversed for thousands of years. Barring geoengineering, many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions will be irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes to the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level.
The good news. But like Pandora’s Box, after all the bad news, there was still a message of hope– it’s not too late to slow down and eventually reverse the most harmful effects of climate change, but the world has a lot to do and must act immediately.
Notably, if the world undertakes strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, the impacts of climate change can be limited. While benefits for air quality would come quickly, it could take another 20-30 years to see global temperatures stabilize. The general global goal is net zero carbon emissions by 2050. For the U.S, these goals also includes cutting greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030, making the electricity grid carbon neutral by 2035, and reaching a reaching net zero emissions economy-wide by no later than 2050.
The even better news. While new technologies are needed to help combat climate change—such as advanced battery storage systems to pair with intermittent renewables like wind and solar—we have an incredibly powerful tool for decarbonization already available to maintain and deploy: nuclear power.
Let’s paint the big picture here:
- Cleaning the current energy sector will be an immense task. Decarbonization is not going to be an easy task. The electricity sector itself accounts for about 25 percent of both the U.S. and global total emissions, with fossil fuel providing more than 60 percent of electricity generated in the United States and globally. Beyond the grid, decarbonizing other sectors—such as transportation (29% of U.S. emissions) and industry (23% of U.S. emissions)—will require access to both new clean technologies (such as batteries for vehicles) and new sources of energy to power those clean technologies.
- Energy use is expected to double at the same time it needs to be decarbonized. At the same time the world needs to decarbonize the energy sector, there will also be a huge uptick in demand—with the Energy Information Agency estimating a 50% increase in world energy use by 2050. There are also nearly a billion people in the world without access to electricity. So, not only does the world need to decarbonize the energy sector we have, when we build new energy sources to meet the increased demand, they need to be non-carbon emitting.
- Decarbonization will not succeed if the lights do not stay on. At the same time we need to decarbonize the grid, we need to make sure we have reliable power. Ironically, abnormal weather conditions—such as the kind we keep seeing linked to climate change—can lead to elevated risks to the grid—affecting both generation and demand, as well as causing energy shortages that lead to energy emergencies. As outlined in our recent blog post on grid reliability, when the lights go out not only does it have significant financial impacts, but it costs lives as well. The recent Texas power crisis that occurred in February 2021 is an example of this. As outlined in a recent report, when the storm hit this past winter, more than 4.5 million households were left without electricity during an extreme cold snap, with the storm and outages leading to the loss of over 100 lives and causing an economic loss estimated to be about $155 billion.
So, what’s the solution? The IPCC report makes clear that we need to use everything in our arsenal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, we need immense sources of energy that do not produce greenhouse gases, that support a reliable electricity grid.
Nuclear energy fits this bill as a very powerful tool to be used to combat climate change, but is an often overlooked part of the climate change solution. For example:
- Effective: Nuclear is a zero-emission source of energy during operation and is far more efficient in certain key metrics than other clean energy sources. For example, it can produce reliable, continuous energy, on far less land.
- Contributing: Nuclear power currently provides over 50% of clean energy generation in the U.S. (despite the current U.S. nuclear fleet actually decreasing in size over the past few decades, along with a massive scale-up of renewables). And on the global front, it is the second largest source of low carbon power, making up 10% of the world’s electricity.
- Innovating: Advanced reactors in the U.S. are on the brink of deployment, showing that nuclear power can play a key role in the energy transition from fossil fuels. Advanced reactors, which produce process heat, can decarbonize the electric grid as well as heavy industry (which accounts for 23% of U.S. emissions itself).
And along with the existing fleet of nuclear power plants and advanced reactors, the world is on the brink of commercializing fusion power. Fusion, the process that powers the Sun, has long been seen as the “holy grail” of energy production. Whereas nuclear reactors split atoms apart to release energy, fusion facilities push them together. A key trait that they both share is the ability to produce an immense amount of electricity without emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
As the world’s largest producer of nuclear power, accounting for more than 30% of worldwide nuclear generation, and the second largest greenhouse gas emitting country, the U.S. has a responsibility to promote innovation and deployment of technologies that can meaningfully combat climate change. That includes, at a minimum, making sure nuclear energy is part of the discussion and part of the solution for combatting climate change.
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