A response to George Monbiot and anyone else who thinks nuclear power can be a core sustainability solution…

Wrote this as a response to Monbiots request to ‘Talk to me about nuclear power‘ on CiF today… Thought I might as well put it up here – while I’m not a knee-jerk opponent of nuclear power I think the following issues must be considered if the pro-nuclear lobby is to be taken seriously… And I have major doubts over whether they can be addressed…

I did my MSc on the sustainability characteristics of nuclear power, particularly Gen III+ and Gen IV designs.

When I started my studies I was a fairly firm supporter of nuclear power – While acknowledging its problems I saw it as a key technology for the transition to a low-carbon, sustainable global energy system.

However, a year of studying the issue, and the politics that surround it led me to the conclusion that nuclear power can never be a significant part of the global solution.

Please set my mind at rest on the following issues:

  1. Scale – we would have to build hundreds of new nuclear power stations to significantly increase the proportion of electricity generated by nuclear, not only replacing our ageing fleet of power stations in the west, but building many more in China, India, SE Asia and the Middle East. This means finding huge amounts of capital (upfront) to fund their construction, and it means reviving an industry that has been relatively moribund for decades. It means pouring money into a technology which is not going to get dramatically cheaper as a result, as much of the cost associated with nuclear power is in the physical construction of the plants, particularly the safety systems. In the same way that there isn’t much room for reducing the cost of the construction of a dam, there isn’t that much room to reduce the cost of a nuclear power station. Contrast with renewable technologies, which have low marginal costs, and are on rapidly decreasing cost/kWh curves at the moment. This makes them much easier and faster to roll out on piecemeal, incremental basis, without the requirement for massive upfront investment. Which is going to make building them much more scalable, and, in an uncertain (economic, as well as everything else) climate, much easier to fund.
  2. Sustainability of nuclear power – while nuclear power is a genuinely low carbon option, it does have fuel requirements, and a significant expansion of the share of nuclear in our energy mix would require a significant expansion of uranium mining, processing, etc. This will, over time, drive up the cost of fuel. Again, little hope for nuclear power to become cheaper, unless we aggressively pursue the reprocessing option, which has its own problems, in particular a significantly increased proliferation risk.
  3. Intergenerational issues – the long term disposal of nuclear waste, while perfectly feasible in engineering terms, is less so politically. We will be choosing to increase by a large amount the quantity of extremely toxic waste we create, and will be leaving yet another unwelcome legacy for our descendants. Although the impact of climate change will be worse, if we are to deal with the problem of climate change etc. we will have to start taking intergenerational equity seriously.
  4. Political stability – Nuclear power is not a technology I would want to see widespread in the world which is declining in stability. Even assuming we act decisively and collectively as a species and address the problems of climate change and the sustainability of our civilisation, there seems a very good chance of huge political upheaval over the next century – not something which sits particularly well, in my opinion, with the construction of a large amount of new nuclear plant, waste repositories, etc., along with a large expansion in the movement of nuclear material.
  5. Technological lock-in – Fossil fuels seemed like a good idea at the time. We spent over a century building infrastructure based on them, and now we’re stuck with it, and have created an immensely powerful vested interest for sticking with them, an interest group which is currently doing its level best to prevent action on sustainability issues. Are we to believe that in a century we will easily give up our nuclear industry? Or will we be creating another unsustainable energy bubble?
  6. We don’t need nuclear – we can build enough renewable power to meet our needs, as long as we take some care to sensibly manage (and reduce) our needs. Admittedly this is a contentious statement, which cannot be proven, but we do know that there are sufficient available renewable resources to meet global demand, with current technology, at least in theory. These technologies are in their infancy when compared with nuclear, the recipient of staggering levels of investment over many decades. When (if!) solar, wind, wave, tidal, geothermal, on both the large and small scale, reach technological maturity, along with the associated power transmission and storage infrastructure, we won’t need nuclear. In order to successfully address our sustainability problems, we will, however, need the renewable and associated technologies mentioned above. Why invest in nuclear if in 50 years we won’t need it (either because we’re well on the way to solving our problems, or we have failed to deal with them and have only a remote chance of doing so without cataclysmic upheaval.

I agree it’s a shame that the environmental movement was so successful in preventing nuclear construction from the 80s to the present day, and we would no doubt be in a better position on climate change at the moment if we had gone down the French route then, but its a bigger shame that the nascent renewable revolution of the 70s was stifled so successfully. Which paradigm would you rather had been dominant for the past 30 years?

Why make the same mistake again?

And why feel the need to court controversy so closely George?


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A novel sort of corporate taxation?

I’ve been thinking about how tax reform could drive positive social change for a while, particularly corporate taxation, as it seems very large corporations have a wee bit of a problem behaving responsibly and playing nicely with the rest of us.

I’m not much of an economist, so the following should be taken with a pinch of salt…

But as far as I can see the central issue is how to put pressure on corporate entities to behave responsibly within the wider socio-economic ecosystem.

In natural ‘climax’ ecosystems (which are surely what we should be aiming for in socio-economic terms) stability is achieved via positive and negative feedback mechanisms – the same things that maintain homeostasis in the human body.

Taxation systems are already filling a regulatory role in our socio-economic ecosystem, so why not tailor them further towards homeostasis – or rather, since we want to allow change, but try to limit negative impacts of change, tailor them towards sustainability.

I would identify the two major enablers of corporate irresponsibility as follows:

(Not saying that there aren’t others mind…)

1) Inequality – the larger the corporation, the greater the divide in pay between top and bottom. Hence fewer, larger corporations means more people in greater poverty than would otherwise be the case. Globalisation makes this problem even worse – if corporate pay strcutures are a pyramid, with many low-paid workers supporting a few plutocrats, then globalising the pyramid makes the difference between the top and the bottom much greater, while obscuring the differential across national borders. If we have to have pyramid shaped pay structures, the pyramids should be as small as possible…

2) Geographical reach – Once a corporation reaches a certain size it can dominate national and international economies, to the point where its failure would have disastrous consequences for others. It then becomes rather less likely to behave responsibly, being able to take bigger risks and having greater legislative power than one might wish for a wholly self-interested, largely unaccountable legal entity.

I would like to see an analysis of what a corporate taxation system based on two metrics would do.

1) Tax proportional to the ratio of annual pay between the highest and lowest paid employee.

2) Tax proportional to the distance between a corporations Head Office and its farthest offices.

The system should be set up so that a company could have global reach but would then be required to have a very low ratio of highest to lowest pay, or have a high ratio of low to high pay, but a lower geographical reach. The consequence of doing neither would be a punitive rate of taxation.

The two rates should cross in the middle, as it were, and be set so that companies which occupy this middle ground continue to pay the same tax rate as they currently do. Smaller companies (by the two metrics outlined above) would pay less tax than they currently do, and larger would pay more.

Growth of new enterprises would therefore be encouraged, up to a point beyond which the increasing tax burden of further growth would inhibit that growth – unless the company operates in a very egalitarian way, or maintains a very small global footprint.

What do you think?

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Deny, Dupe and Delay…

Just got back from Ecobuild 2011, or more precisely from Stream 2 of their conference programme, a series of seminars and lectures with the theme ‘Beyond Construction: achieving a sustainable future’. Some truly excellent speakers, and a good audience too.

There were a couple of panel members whose views gave me pause though, and I think it’s worth having a think about them and what they said. Both were good examples of the kind of arguments that get used to water down responses to the global sustainablilty crisis, and that appear to come from neutral, or even green, political territory.

One was Rita Clifton, a Saatchi and Saatchi vet and current chairman of Interbrand. The other was Michale Portillo, former future prime minister. I’ll look at what Ms. Clifton had to say first – Portillo will have to wait for another post.

The panel were debating ‘Ending our love affair with more’, and the other three speakers (Richard Douthwaite, Clive Hamilton and A C Grayling) all gave good reasons for thinking that ending our love affair with more would be a good thing, both for us and for the planet. All well and good, and a rather refreshing shower of sanity…

Ms. Clifton, on the other hand, told us that what the green movement should do is rebrand sustainability – according to her all we have to do is become more responsible consumers and the market will solve our problems.

Essentially, she was saying that we can consume our way out of this crisis.

And that it’s up to the consumer to police the corporations – I kid you not, when asked how the sweeping and fundamental changes we need to make to our systems can ever be brought about when the incumbent major players use their market position to stifle change she said (very roughly, but I think I have her argument straight):

‘Companies which abuse their positions will be rejected by the consumer, and lose their dominant market position’

Ah well, problem solved then! And don’t go blaming the wealth and power of big business for the state of the world – it’s your job, consumer, to make sure there are no abuses of position.

And the example she used to demonstrate this? Innocent smoothies. You’re probably aware of the Innocent brand, hopefully you’re also aware that Coca-cola acquired a majority share in the company last year. Hopefully you’re also aware that tropically sourced fruit drinks are hardly the most sustainable product out there.

Yeah, I couldn’t believe it either, and neither could the rest of the room. Which was rather refreshing, as she was clearly used to getting a positive response to her ‘daring’ brand of corporate apologism.

But this is what we’re up against – the more the transition of thought happens, the more greedy eyes will be watching, trying to work out how to get a piece of the pie.

Well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say trying to grab the whole pie, replace it with a mass produced imitation made from palm oil and then copyright the recipe and sue the people who originally cooked it for intellectual property theft.

If corporate capitalism was capable of saving civilisation, it would have done so.

The problems have been abundantly clear for three decades at least now, and all that we’ve had from these foolish masters and mistresses of industry is excuses for inaction.

Like the captain of the Titanic, they daren’t admit their ship could be vulnerable, and they lack the courage to say Stop! Reverse course! The best you can hope for from these shills is a change of course that comes too late to stop the catastrophe.

You can bet that they’re already eyeing up the spaces in the lifeboats though…

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Suspicions confirmed.

I’ve speculated that the amazing level of climate change deny, delay and general obfuscation, which is pretty much a given of any post on the topic these days (see the first and second posts here ;)), must be due to some use of automation on their part.

And now the evidence is in:



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This is kind of spooky…

Ok, I started this blog with good intentions in the New Year, but so far have written one post and told about three people of its existence. So, y’know, not exactly getting a lot of traffic here…

However, I did log in this morning to work on a couple of posts, and was startled to find a comment waiting for approval…

Now, I know the Guardian comment pages get spammed by denier nutjobs, but I hardly thought I’d attract that (or any) kind of attention.

Let alone a mere eight hours after making my first post…

Still, for the edification of anyone out there I reproduce the comment below. With a few comments of my own.

From Roger (comment originally made on post no. 1 here, but not really about that post, just a generic appeal to conspiracy and cry for inaction…)

I think that we are in the grip of the biggest and most insane hoax in history [conspiracy theory – pretty much by definition once you start believing in these you’ve stopped listening to sense. Massive, large scale conspiracies are just impossible to organise, especially for a (relatively) poorly funded bunch of scientists. Of course, a massive and well funded campaign on behalf of people already in power might just work, but that’s not really a conspiracy, that’s just business as usual], and unless the public get wise to it soon, we will all be parted from what wealth we have [personal wealth prime concern – would you be prepared to sacrifice some of that wealth so your children and grandchildren can have a decent planet to live on? Ah, but of course, it’s all a ‘hoax’…].

Lets take a simple economic view of what is likely to happen [‘let’s oversimplify things’].

In the absence of sufficient alternative solutions/technologies [there are a wide range of practical and affordable technologies, from clean renewable and sustainable generation techs, to simple waste reduction and efficiency improvement. The total investment in new renewables capacity in 2009 was only 150 billion USD. Set that against the 312 billion USD in subsidies recieved by the fossil fuel industry annually] the only way western countries can ever attain the IPCC demands of CO2 emissions reduced to 40% below 1990 levels, (that’s about 60% below todays) is to machine restrictions on the use of fossil fuels [how about just removing the subsidies they receive? Or reducing their subsidies match those received by the entire renbewables industry, about 57 billion USD per year. Bear in mind that the subsidies renewable techs recieve are intended to help develop nascent industries. Since the fossil industries have had centuries to make themselves economically viable, perhaps, if they still aren’t, it’s time to pull the plug on them and allow them to sink or swim on their own merits. This whole issue deserves a post on its own – why the hell are taxpayers still propping these industries up ?]. Emission Trading schemes are an example.

As the use of fossil fuels is roughly linear with anthropogenic CO2 emissions, to attain a 60% reduction of emissions , means about the same proportion of reduction of fossil fuel usage, including petrol, diesel, heating oil, not to mention coal and other types including propane etc [in order to reduce our emissions, we must do less of the things which cause them. No argument from me here!].

No matter how a restriction on the use of these is implemented, even a 10% decrease will make the price of petrol go sky high [actually, it won’t IF we develop some alternatives to using fossil fuels. As the price of fossil sources of energy increases, alternatives become economically viable.  In order to compete, oil companies will have to keep prices low. Of course, at some point this will mean it is no longer economically feasible to extract the oil. But we’re getting close to that point, even without climate change, so perhaps developing alternatives isn’t such a bad idea. This will spur the development of new industries, creating jobs and saving the planet. And don’t forget the other negatives to fossil fuel use. Why argue against cleaner air?] In otherwords, (and petrol is just one example) we can expect, if the IPCC has its way, a price rise on petrol of greater than 500%.

First of all, for all normal people, this will make the family car impossible to use [first of all, normal people don’t have a family car. Only a tiny minority of the world’s population even own one. By ‘all normal’ I think you mean ‘people like me’] . Worse than that though, the transport industry will also have to deal with this as well and they will need to pass the cost on to the consumer. Simple things like food will get prohibitively expensive. Manufacturers who need fossil energy to produce will either pass the cost on to the consumer or go out of business. If you live further than walking distance from work, you will be in trouble [well, you may have to adjust, but I’m sure you could cope. Remember, if we ignore your cavalier dismissal of the science, and the physical reality of the changes we are making to our climate, the argument here is that we should do nothing about massively disrupting the global climate, because you want to drive to work. Walk. Cycle. Move house. Change job. Buy an electric car. The list of fairly minor lifestyle changes is endless. Minor, that is, set against the likely alternative of massive climate disruption, ecosystem collapse AND the price of petrol going through the roof to boot!]

All this leads to an economic crash of terrible proportions as unemployment rises and poverty spreads [and yet, even if this were to come to pass it would still be nothing compared to the consequences of getting this wrong, and failing to act on climate change while we still can].

I believe that this will be the effect of bowing to the IPCC and the AGW lobby. AND as AGW is a hoax it will be all in vain [well you better hope it’s a hoax]. The world will continue to do what it has always done while normal people starve and others at the top (including energy/oil companies and emission traders) will enjoy the high prices [Erm, and your proposed ‘do nothing’ approach will solve these problem how exactly?].

Neither this scenario nor any analysis of the cost of CO2 emission reductions is included in IPCC literature[Large parts of them are concerned with the economics of adaptation to and mitigation of climate change], and the Stern report which claims economic expansion is simply not obeying economic logic as it is known in todays academic world [this would be the same economic logic that brought us the current global financial crisis, yes? I think you may find that part of the problem is that conventional economic analysis fails to put a price on dealing with the consequences of climate change. This analysis obviously only works if it’s all a ‘hoax’. Gambling the future of the human race on a conspiracy theory – hardly my idea of sound fiscal policy].

The fact that the emission reduction cost issue is not discussed, leads me to believe that there is a deliberate cover up of this issue [it is discussed, at length, by the IPCC, by the IEA, in fact, by every organisation working to avoid global catastrophe. The conclusions are generally that the cost of reducing emissions is much less than the cost (economic, social and environmental) of the ‘do nothing’ approach] Fairly obviously the possibility of starvation will hardly appeal to the masses [uncontroversial, its true – I would interested to know how the current, widespread problem of starvation will solved by not investing in replacements for ever more expensive fossil fuels?].

AGW is baloney anyway! [I’m afraid not…]

Well, that was probably a waste of time…

And it leaves me a bit short on the optimism front as well…so here’s a quick repost of something that cheered me up the other day:

Climateprogress – Why family fights over climate are a good sign

Good day to you all and don’t let the denier zombie trolls get to you 😉

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Hmm well, its what the tagline says, so…

Why not to panic in 2011 – what reasons for optimism in the coming year?

I’m not a natural optimist. Not a natural pessimist either, but I do find myself influenced by doom and gloom in general. Which tends to mean, in the context of paying attention to the state of the world, and especially the environment, that you’re feeling rather doomed and gloomy…

But being depressed about it doesn’t really gain you anything, and can result in looking longingly at the crack pipe syringe whisky bottle far too early in the day…

So, take a step back from getting wound up/depressed by the comments threads on Cif Green, and consider a few things…

For a start, the global zeitgeist, the mood, does seem to be shifting in favour of action on the climate change. Even the US is about to start treating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. From the start of 2011 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will begin regulating emissions, both from cars and light trucks (20% of US emissions), and from industrial concerns which emit more than 100,000 tons of CO2 per year. Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that, and a lot more political, and of course a huge coalition of vested idiots are lining up to challenge the move, but basically a massively good thing.

Even the court challenges are a good thing – very public, and on the record, and not going to go away quietly or easily.

Lots of good stuff has been happening fairly quietly, because of things like the above. Its what happens when an enviroment of regulatory certainty is created, and that’s what has been happening in the last few years – it’s looking increasingly unlikely that climate change is just going to go away, and while those industries most heavily tied into the status quo are obviously a bit stuck with their mindless opposition to action, inaction in the face of an unavoidably obvious sea change is just stupid, whatever your political stripe.

Over here in the EU we’re still talking the talk, and increasingly walking the walk. OK, so the sort of WW2 level of effort that is needed to tackle the problem is still nowhere near happening, but the foundations are being laid. Particularly exciting for me has been the progress made by Destertec, which, after a long while sitting on the parking apron, looks as if it may be taxiing for takeoff…

Lots and lots of other good stuff happening – feed-in-tariffs and (hopefully) the renewable heat incentive here in the UK, electric cars coming into the mainstream, the former third world looking increasingly as if it’ll be skipping a couple of rungs on the technology ladder and overtaking us before too long.

Ah well, too much to list here, and an honest list would, I suppose, include all the bad stuff which has been happening, of which there is also plenty.

The important thing to remember, in the context of optimism going into 2011, is that the ship of the world looks as if its making a course change. When your ship’s a supertanker, of course, this may take a while to be obvious, but the signs are there all right.

And its not something you can roll back easily. Its taken 20 or 30 years to get to this point, to get from the fringe to the mainstream, and pushing back the other way just isn’t going to work. Hah!

Reminds me of this, from Buckminster Fuller, my favourite late achiever:

Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary —the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab.It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, call me Trim Tab. 

—Buckminster Fuller

Remember that in 2011…

Happy New Year!

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