Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Nuclear Power and the Greenhouse Effect

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Nuclear Power and the Greenhouse Effect

Article excerpt

Ron Smith suggests the need for a reassessment of attitudes to nuclear power generation if world demand for electricity is to be met in future.

When the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) met in Auckland in early February this year, the group was widely reported as being `increasingly certain' that the atmosphere was warming and that it was due to the burning of fossil fuels. Individuals at the meeting talked of dramatic changes in climate around the globe, of ice-caps melting, of large-scale inundation of low-lying land and of catastrophic consequences for human populations. Recent official publications in New Zealand have confirmed these judgments, speaking of global temperature rises of between 1 and 3.5 per cent and sea level rises of half a metre over the next century.(1)

Of course, it is accepted that there are sceptics, both in New Zealand and around the world, and that many of these are academically respectable persons. These sceptics point to inconsistencies in the data and the complex nature of the interactions that lie behind climate change. The world has had ice-ages and warm periods many times and these have been without the influence of fossil fuel combustion. Accepting that this is so, it seems very prudent nonetheless to assume that there is something in the widely-shared opinion that climatic (and other environmental) change will be the consequence of continued high levels of combustion of carbon fuels. Commenting on this point as recently as 1 March this year, the Director of the US National Climate Data Center, Thomas Karl, expressed the opinion that there was only a one in 20 chance that the high temperatures of recent years were simply unusual events, as opposed to being a turning point in global climate change.(2) About the same time, a US National Academy of Sciences report talked of `an undoubtedly real' warming of the Earth's surface.

The problem of `greenhouse gases' in the atmosphere does not relate exclusively to the combustion of carbon-containing fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) and the consequent production of carbon dioxide ([CO.sub.2]) but this is the dominant phenomenon. Efforts to head off global climatic change have, therefore, focused on the need to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and five other `key' greenhouse gases. The first major steps to this end were taken at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, held in the Japanese city of Kyoto in December 1997.

The principal outcome of the conference was an agreement to limit net emissions of greenhouse gases to a ceiling based on what emissions had been in the base-line year of 1990. This was to be accomplished by the target date of 2008-10. Specific targets were set for nearly forty countries. These targets ranged from a permitted 10 per cent net increase in greenhouse emissions over 1990 levels by 2010 to an eight per cent decrease. The latter was generally the case for the United States and European countries. Australia, on the other hand, was allowed an eight per cent increase. For New Zealand the variation was zero. We are committed to reducing our emissions to what they were in 1990. Given that they are presently around 60 per cent higher than what they were in 1990, this is quite an undertaking.

Noteworthy absence

It is noteworthy that most of the countries present at Kyoto came away with no target whatsoever. These include many of the largest states of the world and some of the fastest growing economies. In this group are China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan and the developing world generally. The rationale for this is straightforward. The countries of the developed world progressed through the unrestrained exploitation of fossil fuels. It would be an injustice to place restrictions on those who have not yet completed their development. All the same, it does leave a gaping hole in the regulatory framework that is supposed to enable the world community to deal with the problem of potentially disastrous climatic change. …

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