Climate Change and Nuclear Power

By Barnett, Jon | New Zealand International Review, May 2001 | Go to article overview

Climate Change and Nuclear Power


Barnett, Jon, New Zealand International Review


Jon Barnett takes issue with a recent treatment of the issue of climate change.

In the NZIR's November-December 2000 issue (vol 24, no 6), Dr Ron Smith argued that a serious effort at tackling climate change requires a reassessment of our attitudes towards nuclear power. His article contains factual errors, and incorrectly assumes that there has been insufficient attention given to the question of nuclear energy as a solution to climate change. A short corrective response and an alternative perspective will be offered here.

The errors of fact in Smith's article relate to the causes of and responses to climate change. Indeed the title itself conveys a lack of understanding of the issue. There has always been a natural `greenhouse effect' in that some heat from incoming solar radiation is trapped by a `blanket' of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The contemporary issue is that since the industrial revolution human emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane have been adding to this blanket (enhancing the greenhouse effect). This means more heat is trapped (global warming), which changes the global energy budget and hence global climate. So the problem is known variously as climate change, global warming, or the enhanced greenhouse effect and not, as Smith has it, simply `the greenhouse effect'.

A major error in Smith's paper is his assertion that global temperature is expected to rise by between `1 and 3.5 per cent' (p.7). These figures, originally from the 1995 Second Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), are not expressed as percentage increases but as increases in degrees Celsius. The IPCC's `best estimate' of temperature increase by 2100 is 2 [degrees] C. The recent Third Assessment Report of the IPCC estimates an increase in global mean surface air temperature of between 1.4 and 5.8 [degrees] C by 2100, with a concommittant rise in mean sea-level of between 9 and 88 centimetres.(1)

Dr Smith is confused on the matter of the international climate change treaty. He refers to the 1997 `United Nations Climate Change Conference' held at Kyoto. The proper name for this conference was the Third Session of the Conference of Parties (COP-3) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC was signed in 1992 at the Earth Summit and has subsequently been ratified by 186 countries (as of 7 September 2000). Smith's paper does not mention the UNFCCC at all, but it is this and not the 1997 Kyoto Protocol which was `the first major step' towards the reduction of greenhouse gases (p.7). Nevertheless, the Kyoto Protocol is important because it sets legally binding targets on developed countries should they ratify. Ratifying parties are required to meet their emission reduction targets by the first commitment period of the years 2008-12 (not, as Smith suggests, 2008-10). Targets are determined relative to the baseline year of 1990. Thus New Zealand's target is 100 per cent of the base year, which is the same level of emissions as in 1990. Thirty countries have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, including five Pacific Island countries (as of 7 September 2000). Smith is correct in noting that no developed country has ratified the Kyoto Protocol, although 84 countries, including New Zealand, have signed.

The most remarkable and grossly misleading error in Dr Smith's paper is his unsubstantiated claim that New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions are `presently around 60 per cent higher than what they were in 1990' (pp.7-8). The most up-to-date official figures on New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions are contained in New Zealand's Second National Communication under the UNFCCC.(2) New Zealand's gross emissions of carbon dioxide in 1995 had increased by 7 per cent since 1990, and are expected to increase by 33 per cent by 2020. The best measure of New Zealand's emissions comes from the conversion of all greenhouse gases into common global warming potential units, usually expressed as `carbon dioxide equivalents'. …

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