It is not new information that burning fossil fuels is causing climate change. Since the mid-1900s, scientists have warned of the dangers of burning coal, oil and gas which emit greenhouse gases, trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere. The effects of climate change are already impacting people’s lives with an estimated 23 million people being displaced by climatic disasters in the last decade, and these disasters are expected to become more severe. They include higher temperatures and extended extreme droughts which can lead to wildfires, a shortage of fresh water, and melting ice caps which increase sea levels around the world. Other aspects of climate change include extreme weather events like storms and flooding. These phenomena can cause crop failure and food shortages, a lack of drinking water, air pollution and species extinction. So, if we understand the damage we are doing to our planet, why is 84% of the world’s energy still coming from fossil fuel sources?
There are alternative energy sources to fossil fuels: nuclear energy and renewable energy. Switching to either of these sources would see a dramatic drop in greenhouse gas emissions which is essential to slowing and reversing climate change. While these alternatives are currently being used around the world, both alternatives currently have drawbacks which prevent them from entirely replacing fossil fuel energy. So what is slowing the transition?
First on the table: nuclear energy. This source is celebrated for providing affordable and reliable energy. It can be produced all year round irrespective of the weather, unlike solar and wind power. Furthermore, compared with fossil fuels, it produces much more power from the same amount of fuel. Most importantly, no carbon dioxide – the most significant gas in causing global warming – is created in the nuclear reactor.
So what could possibly go wrong? Well, unfortunately quite a lot – so much so that many people feel the disadvantages and potential risks outweigh the benefits.
- Uranium is used as fuel in the nuclear reactor but mining this material is known to pollute the local environment with radon and arsenic. These substances are hugely damaging to human health and historically the negative impacts of uranium mining have fallen on low-income and minority populations.
- Nuclear power stations use substantial amounts of water for cooling and need to be situated near large bodies of water like lakes, rivers and oceans. It is feared that as climate change worsens there will be a shortage of water for these power stations, rendering them redundant. On top of this, many nuclear power stations release warm water back into the environment at around 100°F making these bodies of water uninhabitable for most aquatic life.
- A mishap in a nuclear power station can be catastrophic. If the nuclear reactor malfunctions there is the possibility that radioactive material could escape and pollute surrounding areas. Chernobyl is a well known example of a nuclear disaster in which thousands of people died from radiation poisoning, and millions live with long-term health problems linked to the event. More recently there was a nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan after the power station’s cooling systems were compromised by a tsunami.
- The dangers of nuclear energy don’t end once a plant is switched off. Generating nuclear power creates nuclear waste which remains dangerously radioactive for thousands of years. Currently, no satisfactory long-term storage solutions have been found and nuclear waste is piling up around the world in temporary storage containers. Some of the older containers are already beginning to leak. Long-term storage solutions would need to contain the nuclear waste for millennia – as long as it takes to lose its toxicity.
The future of nuclear energy isn’t necessarily bleak, as exciting breakthroughs have taken place over the last few months. Currently, the process of nuclear fission, which involves splitting atoms, is used to generate nuclear power, with radioactive waste as a byproduct. However, nuclear fusion would seemingly be a silver bullet for clean energy with many advantages such as ‘inexhaustibility of resources, inherent safety, no long-lived radioactive wastes, and almost no CO2 emissions’. There are still many challenges to overcome with this process and electricity generated in this way isn’t expected to be commercially available for many years meaning it cannot be depended upon to solve the immediate energy crisis.
Continued research and further investment in nuclear fusion will likely be valuable in the future but probably will not be part of an imminent solution.
Next up: renewable energy. Renewable energy covers a range of energy technologies including solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal and biomass. The energy is derived from natural sources which are constantly replenished and have low or no carbon or other greenhouse gas emissions. Most renewable energy sources don’t involve burning and therefore don’t create air pollution. This is hugely significant given that recent studies show that air pollution from burning fossil fuels is a silent killer, responsible for 8.7 million – one in five – deaths around the world in 2018. Renewable energy has helped to stabilise global energy prices as the cost of renewable energy is dependent only on installation costs, unlike fossil fuel costs which fluctuate based on availability and inflation. An increase in renewable energy consumption has also been found to decrease income inequality and reduce dependence on energy from abroad. So why isn’t the world running exclusively on this clean, infinite source of energy?
Renewable energy technology is still in its infancy and therefore these energy sources are being held back by a lack of infrastructure and innovation. What are the key areas that need to be worked on?
- The reliability of renewable energy is a concern. It goes without saying that solar power cannot be generated when the sun isn’t shining and wind power can’t be produced when the wind isn’t blowing. These two energy sources are currently the front runners in renewable energy technology which means that either different energy technologies need to be able to share the burden or surplus power generated in the right atmospheric conditions needs to be stored for less productive times.
- Storing energy affordably on a large scale still requires more innovation or investment. Some promising ideas include using excess electricity to pump water from a low point to a high point or to compressing air. Both of these can then be released to regenerate electricity.
- There is still room for improvement with the efficiency of renewable energy technology. For example, the most efficient solar panels convert only around 20%-22% of the energy hitting them into electricity. However, efficiency is still improving rapidly as this is a jump from 15% in recent years. Improving efficiency would reduce costs and make it an even more attractive alternative to nuclear as a replacement for fossil fuels.
These issues are by no means insurmountable which indicates a real need for investment in the sector to boost innovation and allow a wider rollout of infrastructure. Certainly, there is no shortage of resources, with enough solar energy reaching the earth every hour to meet the world’s electricity demands for a whole year. Excitingly, recent studies have found that ‘A global transition to 100% renewable energy is possible across the electricity, heat, transport and desalination sectors by 2050’. This was calculated only taking into account current technology.
Given the dangers of nuclear energy and the vast potential of renewables, it seems illogical to prioritise the former in the necessary transition away from fossil fuels. Populations need to encourage their governments to make substantial investments in renewable energy technologies to reduce the need for fossil fuels and consequently cut CO2 emissions as soon as possible. While existing nuclear infrastructure might play a role in bridging the gap between fossil fuels and renewables, its current dangers and the threat it poses to future generations prevents it from being a long-term, sustainable solution.
Credits – Francesca Meynell