The Rest of the World

Here in North America, we are surrounded with rhetoric denouncing the feasibility of climate change mitigation. It’s not possible to reduce our emissions, people say. It’s not worth it.

The situation in the U.S. Congress regarding this issue is becoming so bizarre that hopes for an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have grown faint. Without the U.S. on board, many countries (see: Canada) will bail out entirely.

Not all countries are waiting for everyone else, however. Many developed countries, particularly in Europe, have gone ahead and achieved significant cuts in their emissions. Let’s take a step out of the little bubble of North America and see what the rest of the world managed to do while we bickered about whether or not there was even a problem.

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Countries: the European Union (EU), representing most of Europe

Emission Targets: 20% below 1990 levels by 2020

How They’ll Get There: The EU started a cap-and-trade system in 2005. They also plan to target energy efficiency and develop the use of renewable energy.

How They’re Doing : The total emissions of the EU have declined slightly since 1990. This is partly because many Eastern European countries are still transitioning from communism, and their emissions are fairly low while their economies recover. However, some rich countries such as Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and the UK have made significant cuts in their emissions, and, as of 2008, were already around 10-20% below 1990 levels.

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Country: the United Kingdom (UK)

Emission Targets: 12.5% below 1990 levels by 2012, as per their Kyoto targets. Through their Climate Change Acts, the UK has also set a goal of 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

How They’ll Get There: The government is aiming for 40% of their energy to come from low-carbon sources (both renewable and nuclear). They are also focusing on efficiency, and planning a cap-and-trade system.

How They’re Doing: The UK is well on track to meet, and even exceed, their Kyoto agreements. By 2010, their emissions were predicted to be 11% below their Kyoto targets.

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Country: Norway

Emission Targets: Norway has some of the most ambitious targets in the world. Not only are they aiming for emissions to be 30% below 1990 levels by 2020, they are planning a carbon-neutral economy – 100% cuts – by 2050. If a major international agreement comes to pass, like Copenhagen was supposed to be, they will pledge for carbon neutrality by 2030.

How They’ll Get There: In addition to their cap and trade system, Norway is investing a lot of money into carbon capture and storage (CCS). They have also introduced taxes on natural gas and stricter efficiency standards for new houses.

How They’re Doing: Norway’s emissions have increased by 8% since 1990. Hopefully their extensive plans will reverse that trend.

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Country: Australia

Emission targets: If an international agreement comes to pass, Australia will reduce their emissions to 25% below 2000 levels by 2020. Otherwise, they will shift that target to 5-15%. Normally, using a baseline that’s later than the standard 1990 is a warning sign, a clever trick that governments use to make their targets look stricter than they are (see: Canada). However, since Australia’s emissions fell slightly between 1990 and 2000, the equivalent target with respect to 1990 is actually more than 25%.

How They’ll Get There: The Australian Parliament has had difficulty passing cap-and-trade legislation. They are hoping to implement this eventually, but will focus on energy efficiency and renewables in the mean time.

How They’re Doing: Originally, Australia refused to sign Kyoto, but in 2007 a new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was elected. He committed the country to Kyoto targets, just a little late. So far, it looks like Australia will easily meet their targets of 8% over 1990 levels by 2012.

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Country: Japan

Emission targets: Japan has set solid targets of 25% below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80% by 2050.

How They’ll Get There: Japan has a cap-and-trade system, and is considering a carbon tax. They also want 10% of their energy to come from renewables by 2020.

How They’re Doing: Japan’s emissions have increased slightly since 1990. As of 2008, they were about 6% above 1990 levels.

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Country: Canada

Emission targets: The Canadian government has pledged to reduce emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. However, emissions in 2005 were quite a bit higher than they were in 1990. When you adjust this estimate to the standard baseline, it’s actually a 2.5% increase. The Environment Canada website describes this as an “ambitious target”. Go figure!

How They’ll Get There: So far, the Canadian government has tightened up fuel efficiency standards for passenger vehicles, but that’s about it. The current administration refuses to consider meaningful action until the United States does. In fact, the House of Commons recently passed a bill setting meaningful emission targets (20% below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80% by 2050)…but the Senate, which has a Conservative majority, voted the bill down with absolutely no debate. Given the fact that Senators are appointed by Prime Ministers, not elected by citizens, it’s hard to see this action as anything less than anti-democratic.

How They’re Doing:By 2008, Canadian emissions had soared to 24% above 1990 levels.

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This data almost makes me feel ashamed to be Canadian, to be a part of such an obstructionist country. Look at what countries in Europe have managed to do. It wasn’t impossible, like so many North American politicians warned. And then look at countries like the United States and Canada, that have not only failed to reduce their emissions, but have actively worked against any kind of a plan to do so.

Future generations will not look on us kindly. We will become the villains of our own history books.

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Update: By popular request:

Country: United States of America

Emission targets: None

How They’ll Get There: Despite not having a formal target for emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to regulate emissions from fossil-fuel fired power plants and refineries in late December. The Republican Party is resorting to all sorts of silliness to try to change this.

How They’re Doing: As of 2008, US emissions were 14% above 1990 levels.

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Nuclear Power in Context

Since its birth, nuclear power has been a target of environmental activism. To be fair, when nuclear power goes wrong, it goes wrong in a bad way. Take a look at what’s happening in Japan right now. Friday’s tsumani damaged the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, and several of its reactors have experienced partial meltdowns. Radiation from the nuclear reactions has been released into the surrounding environment, and could endanger public health in the immediate area, causing cancer and birth defects.

Nuclear disasters are horrifying, and this is by no means the worst that has happened. However, nuclear isn’t the only form of energy that experiences periodic disasters. In fact, over the past century, hydroelectric disasters have killed more people than all other forms of energy disasters combined.

(Sovacool et al, 2008, Fig. 1).

So why do we worry so much more about nuclear power disasters? Is it because the idea of the resulting radiation is more disturbing than the prospect of a dam breaking, even if it’s far less common?

However, an energy source can kill people without a large-scale disaster occurring. Let’s look at fossil fuels. Think of all the miners killed by coal accidents, all the people killed by smog inhalation or exposure to toxic chemicals (such as heavy metals) that are present in fossil fuels, deaths due to gas leaks, civilians killed by wars over oil, and so on. It’s difficult to quantify these numbers, because fossil fuels have been in use for centuries, but they clearly exceed the 4,000 or so deaths due to nuclear power accidents (as well as any other deaths due to nuclear power, such as uranium mining).

We must also look at the deaths due to climate change, which fossil fuel burning has induced. The World Health Organization estimates that over 150 000 people died as a result of climate change in 2000 alone. This annual rate will increase as the warming progresses. If we don’t step away from fossil fuels in time, they could lead to a devastating amount of death and suffering.

Fossil fuels are silent, passive, indirect killers which end up being far more destructive to human life than nuclear power. However, much of the public remains opposed to nuclear energy, and I believe this is a case of “letting perfect be the enemy of good”. I feel that we hold nuclear power to an impossible standard, that we expect it to be perfect. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s far better than the existing system, which desperately needs to be replaced.

There are also exciting developments in nuclear technology that could make it safer and more efficient. In his recent book, top climatologist James Hansen described “fast reactors“, which are a vast improvement over the previous generations of nuclear reactors. It’s also possible to use uranium-238 as fuel, which makes up 99.3% of all natural uranium, and is usually thrown away as nuclear waste because reactors aren’t equipped to use it. Another alternative is to use thorium, a safer and more common element. If we pursue these technologies, the major downsides of nuclear power – safety and waste concerns – could diminish substantially.

Renewable sources of energy, such as solar, wind, and geothermal, are safer than nuclear power, and also have a lower carbon footprint per kWh (Sovacool, 2008b, Table 8). They are clearly the ideal choice in the long run, but they can’t solve the problem completely, at least not yet. Cost is a barrier, as is the problem of storing and transporting the electricity they generate. Maybe a few decades down the line smart grids will become a reality, and we will be able to have an energy economy that is fully renewable. If we wait for that perfect situation before doing anything, though, we will overshoot and cause far more climate change than we can deal with.

I don’t know if I would describe myself as “pro-nuclear”, but I am definitely “anti-fossil-fuel”. I am aware of the risks nuclear power poses, and feel that, from a risk management perspective, it is still preferable to coal and oil by a long shot. Solving climate change will require a multi-faceted energy economy, and it would be foolish to rule out one viable option simply because it isn’t perfect.

A Retraction?

A recent comment by a long-time reader brought a new piece of information to my attention. “What about the JSER?” they asked. “[Someone claimed] that it was a Japanese scientific society that endorsed the falsity of global warming…..What do you think?”

Did this bring the absense of disagreement among professional scientific organizations, at the top of our credibility spectrum, to a close?

I mulled it over and decided to do what seemed to be the most honest course of action. I would research this claim as thoroughly as my resources allowed, and if it turned out to be true, I would publish a retraction of my former statement regarding organizations.

First, however, I needed to get more information. I researched with the following questions in mind:

1) Is the JSER a professional scientific organization? This part of the claim appeared to be true – according to the English section of their website, they published a scientific journal, held conferences and seminars, and boasted over 1500 members.

However, the JSER – the Japan Society of Energy and Resources – likely has a high chance of bias. Its goal is “to promote the science and technology concerning energy and resources and thus to facilitate cooperation among industry academia and governmental sectors for coping with the problems in this field.” With today’s fossil-fuel dependent economy, the JSER likely has a lot of members representing the oil and gas industry. Oil and gas officials can easily fall prey to confirmation bias – their jobs depend on a resource which is causing dire problems for our planet. In their situation, it’s often easiest to deny such problems. In fact, the final scientific organization to change its statement from “humans aren’t affecting the climate” to “oops, yes they are” was the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.

2) Did the JSER officially state that humans aren’t affecting the climate? I found no evidence for an official statement.

3) So where did the claim come from? It started with a written discussion between five JSER representatives. One, the only climatologist of the five, defended the mainstream opinion that humans are causing climate change. One was undecided. The remaining three rejected the theory.

However, this discussion was mistakenly perceived as a “report” by The Register, a British media news source. I found no evidence that this so-called “report” was peer-reviewed (and how could it possibly have passed peer-review – it claimed that global warming stopped in 1998!). For example, the Register article noted, “Remarkably, the subtle and nuanced language typical in such reports has been set aside.” One of the authors is alleged to have compared climatology to ancient astrology.

I think we can safely leave this source as an email debate between colleagues. I cannot imagine how it could be a peer-reviewed document worthy of consideration.

However, as always, I could be wrong. There is little on the Internet regarding the JSER and its report. If any readers have additional information, please comment.

Update: Thanks to John for pointing me to the website of James Annan, a climatologist living in Japan. He knows the authors of the document personally and says, “The “report” is simply the collation of one of these popular-but-pointless sceptic-vs-scientist debates, and has no official status.”