Nuclear retreat leads a clumsy climate dance

The nuclear retreats in Japan and France have been welcomed by many but given it will see fossil fuels gain further influence, it could be tragic news for the world's climate.

Last week’s announcements by Japan and France to reduce or eliminate dependence on nuclear power were greeted with cautious praise from within the environmental movement. “A nuclear-free future is not a choice, it’s an inevitability,” said Kazue Suzuki, Greenpeace Japan nuclear campaigner. More broadly we are told that these are “momentous times” and that nuclear is battling against “younger and better alternatives such as solar and wind energy – a battle that nuclear power can’t win.”

Leaving such flawed rhetoric aside for a moment, there is scope for both pragmatism and very serious concern in analysis of what these recent announcements mean in the fight against a warming climate. Let’s firstly shine the light of reality on the Japanese situation.

Japan has announced an intention to rid itself of nuclear power by 2030. Looking past the tough talk, that’s 18 years away, and as such there is another relevant angle to this story: Japan will probably continue the nuclear restart that is already underway. The policy states: “Until the total phase-out we will only use nuclear reactors that are confirmed safe.”  That’s a precursor to a likely outcome that the remaining 48 reactors will be gradually declared safe and added to the two that have already been restarted. The fact that the three nuclear new-builds that were on ice will now be completed make the announcement look more and more like what it probably is: a placatory gesture in an election year, easily redressed in future. 

The long timeframe of the announcement puts paid to the notion that we will see rapid replacement of nuclear with renewables. As I established in my previous piece, that concept shrivels under the meekest glare of reality. A densely populated, fully developed, mostly mountainous archipelago with poor solar resource but hot, humid summers could not possibly be worse placed for such a challenge. Japan is veering away from this pathway before it even began.

So the great climate risk in this situation is that Japan turns toward fossil fuels instead. As I discussed previously, fuel importation figures clearly indicate has been the default result thus far. As reported by Times Live this week,

“A shift from nuclear means Japan should remain the world’s biggest importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and third-largest purchaser of oil to feed its power stations. The company is also a major importer of coal and is likely to increase reliance on it.”

Japan’s balance of trade is taking a hammering from this. Government estimates suggest this fossil binge will cost an extra $40 billion every year, for the benefit of achieving the same outcome as the nuclear plants, only with more toxic pollution and greater safety hazard. Add the spike in greenhouse gas emissions and by any measure this is a bad deal. But in a country that is faced with an epic rebuild from a devastating quake and tsunami, with an estimated cost exceeding $200 billion, the fossil binge is outright economic insanity.

This is clearly not tenable and as editorialised in the Washington Post, the announcement should be viewed through this pragmatic lens. Japan’s nuclear fleet is paid for, operational power stations of massive capital value. They give Japan exactly the energy security it requires, with ongoing fuel costs being a virtual irrelevance. A nuclear restart would return reliable power to the people and stem the cash haemorrhage on fossil fuels.

Renewable energy is impossible in the short-term, fossil fuels are economically devastating. Nuclear is downright sensible. I’ll wager this is the pathway they are treading. It is dressed up as a distant and easily undone commitment in an election year to placate those who fear nuclear power more than climate change.

But there’s a climate sting in the tail. SMH reports the The Democratic Party of Japan’s policy recommendation paper said this:

“...Japan should develop resources in nearby waters and look to cheaper procurement of liquefied natural gas and other fossil fuels, including shale gas.”

Once again, grand talk of renewables is but the wrapping paper for the gift of fossil gas. The capacity of some to overlook such messages never fails to astonish me. If Japan’s distant commitment is realised we should be in no doubt as to the long run outcomes:  our fifth largest emitter will be further addicted to fossil fuels, with an enhanced renewable sector that has merely displaced another zero-carbon generator. It’s the opposite of climate progress. In that event, every new tonne of Japanese greenhouse gas should be parked on the balance sheet of those who stoke fear of nuclear power.

Ironically, the bigger climate threat comes ten thousand kilometres from Fukushima. With a large fleet of reactors that have safely delivered power for around 40 years, new French President Francois Hollande has restated his pledge to reduce the contribution of nuclear power to France’s electricity from around 75 to 50 per cent, while simultaneously talking up tough emissions reductions for the EU.

This truly seems an inexplicable concept. It concerns me more than Japan because France, like Germany, can more easily continue the pretence of serious concern about climate change through the wonders of an interconnected continent that trades in electricity, fuels and emissions. Gaming the system to look green is a slightly easier task in Europe.

For example, the EU ETS makes provision for up to “50 per cent of the of the community-wide reductions below the 2005 levels” over the period from 2008 to 2020 to be met with credits, including Clean Development Mechanism and Joint Implementation credits that will be achieved beyond the purchasing country’s borders. Lazlo Varro of the IEA summed up the complexity nicely with regard to Germany:

Even if Germany can prevent emission increases by importing low-carbon electricity from neighbours... most of those exporting countries will then have to buy credits under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme to pay for their own higher emissions as a result. Ultimately, other European countries will share in the costs of Germany's nuclear phaseout. "Germany is not an island," he said. "It's at the heart of the European electricity system and everything is physically interconnected."

Don’t look now Chancellor, but your biggest neighbour, the one that exports lots of zero-carbon electricity, wants the same quick political win of phasing out nuclear power that you did. I’m guessing that France ditching nuclear too was not in Germany’s original plan, and it means the whole EU will be shopping for additional credits.

While carbon credits can deliver wonderful benefits to meritorious projects around the world, their best place is as a short term strategy for quick cuts while eliminating domestic sources.

They aren’t a backstop for perverse, politically motivated decisions to eliminate serviceable zero-carbon generation. Australia, Germany, France, the UK and many, many others all seem to think major portions of their emissions cuts can be achieved outside of their borders, indefinitely. Yet outside those borders the developing world’s own emissions take-off in reflection of our own.  We want to pass the buck. We can’t pass it forever, but we seem hell-bent on trying.

The scientific backdrop to these policy announcements provides a staggering reality check. Every day, the National Snow and Ice Data Centre gives us the latest on the extraordinary record breaking 2012 melt season in the Arctic. Just one week ago, Peter Wadhams, Professor of Ocean Physics at Cambridge University, called for a worldwide nuclear power station “binge” to avoid runaway global warming. This call was immediately rebuffed by Greenpeace, who instead trumpeted victory when nations proposed the exact opposite policies, policies Mark Lynas unequivocally labels “insane”.

It is all further evidence of the disturbing Danse Macabre by developed nation governments that passes as a climate change response. They blithely propose replacing one zero-carbon energy source for another. They gaily purchase credits not to hasten victory, but to maintain the masquerade that fossil fuels are somehow still the solution. Holding hands in strongly worded but distant commitments, they parade in a widening gyre toward our mutually assured climate destruction. But most bizarre of all, urging them along to the beat of mindless drums is an environmental movement that has lost its way, cheering every nuclear set back even as it draws us closer to our ultimate failure.

We need to stop the music. We are running out of time.

Ben Heard is the Director of ThinkClimate Consulting and Founder of Decarbonise SA.