- Despite recent advances, the US, EU, and UK have much to do to address climate challenges.
- Nuclear energy will again become integral to the move to clean energy, with fusion becoming more important.
- Enthusiasm for renewable energy cuts across the political spectrum.
- Electrification of transportation is an ambition, although several impediments will slow progress.
Nuclear energy – for years, activists have fought against its adoption as part of the clean energy transition. But given the considerable shortfalls in developed markets to tackle climate change so far, we may have no better option according to Andrew Revkin – a 35-year veteran of the environmental and reporting community.
Revkin recently joined Bilal Hafeez to discuss the science (and politics) of climate change. And following our first article on using ‘risk’ as a resolution-driven answer, we now ask, are we due for a new nuclear era?
European vs US Approaches to Climate Challenges
The EU has an upfront approach towards regulation. Hafeez cites the governance of financial markets (and clear guidelines on what is green and non-green), in addition to standards and targets regarding housing.
On the US side, despite much political partisanship, Hafeez notes a consensus across the divide. Additionally, some states and corporate entities are proactively looking to affect change in the climate space. The US seems dynamic, and some things are being done correctly on both sides of the Atlantic.
There Is Still Much to Do in the EU and UK
While acknowledging the progress, Revkin highlights the EU’s shortcomings in housing standards.
He said that the EU ‘talks a great game’ about housing standards. The reality is, however, that only a small percentage of homes in Western Europe have had energy retrofits.
We can make homes more climate efficient in many ways, yet so few have had the necessary modifications. Revkin notes that the war in Ukraine may catalyse more awareness of the need for energy efficiency.
The situation is perhaps worse in UK housing. Energy costs in the UK are excessively high – for example, gas prices rose 128.9% in the year to December 2022. Too many homes in Britain are porous and have old, inefficient heating systems. As in the EU, much can be done to improve household energy consumption.
There Is Still Much To Do in the US
The problem of antiquated and inefficient household heating systems is not unique to the EU and UK – it is also an issue in the US.
Revkin said over five million homes in the US burn heating oil during winter, even though natural gas is a superior energy source.
This is partly an infrastructure problem – for example, where Revkin lives, in the Northeast, natural gas lines have not been introduced. And, in many cases, this is because citizens were resistant to seeing natural gas pipelines (or clean energy sources like windmills) where they live.
There are some positive developments, though. The US is transitioning away from coal quickly, with several states building clean energy infrastructure. In 2005-2019, the use of coal to generate electricity dropped from 50% to 23%.
Revkin identified a positive trend in the US regarding climate challenges. Rather than tackle the problems with the ‘politics of restriction’ characterised by the international treaty approach, the US is adopting the ‘politics of opportunity’ in transitioning to cleaner energy (more on this below).
The Case for Nuclear Energy
Revkin sees a significant shift happening in the US and Europe regarding nuclear power.
There has been a trend on both sides of the Atlantic to move away from nuclear energy, largely based on fear. The massive breakdown of the facilities at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are obvious examples of nuclear energy production gone wrong, but many other less-known facilities have been phased out too.
Nonetheless, nuclear endures. Revkin cited the continuing operation of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant in California, which was meant to shut down. It remains in operation, as do plants in Germany, which were also meant to cease operating.
This is partly due to what Revkin describes as ‘Putin’s War.’ There is, however, an acknowledgement that some nuclear power generation is a necessity.
Revkin said there will be a new nuclear era, and new plants will be introduced. And while many environmentalists decry additional nuclear facilities (claiming the opportunity cost of not allocating funds to renewables), the newer plants will be safer and better than those built in the 1970s.
Nuclear fusion is also a burgeoning source of energy, and while it is still early days, Revkin says ‘there is a real prospect of really bountiful electricity generated from, and or clean fuels [like] hydrogen coming from, fusion power.’
Fusion is decades away from becoming a viable energy source. Still, Revkin said there are private industries growing around fusion, with longer-term investors financing its development.
Renewables Can Transcend Political Biases
The ‘politics of opportunity’ referenced above is a way to bridge the partisan political divide embedded in the climate discussion, especially in the US. Revkin says the enthusiasm for renewable energy is evident among both Democrats and Republicans.
Revkin specifically identified wind power, and how it is becoming a bigger part of the energy mix in Republican states such as Iowa and Texas.
In 2017, after President Donald Trump was elected, many Republican states legally challenged the Obama administration’s clean power plan, which was planning to clamp down on CO2 emissions. Revkin says most of these states were already well on their way to achieving the prescribed decarbonisation targets.
Additionally, Yale School of the Environment has conducted a series of surveys called ‘Six Americas’ for more than a decade. They showed that even those who are doubtful about global warming are enthusiastic about more R&D for renewable energy and the regulation of CO2 pollution.
The ‘politics of opportunity’ also drove the passage of the $370bn 10-year Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, according to Revkin. The act offers enormous prospects for communities to transition to renewables and cleaner energy systems.
The electrification of transport, especially automobiles, has garnered a lot of attention in recent years. Revkin is a fan of the trend towards electrification, both for households and transportation.
Regarding cars, though, Revkin says there are so many constraints. For example, if you live in a city (without a dedicated driveway), it is difficult to charge your car.
Revkin also notes that most electric vehicles (EVs) in the US belong to the luxury segment of the market. Unless there is a mass-market adoption of EVs, the impact of EVs will be negligible.
In a recent piece on Macro Hive, John Tierney noted that there are numerous impediments to President Biden’s goal of boosting EV sales to 50% of all auto sales by 2030. This makes investment opportunities in EVs elusive.
Although there have been notable advances in the approach to climate challenges, there is still much to do on both sides of the Atlantic. Nonetheless, there is enthusiasm across the political divide for renewable energy.
Nuclear energy will be an important part of the clean energy mix in the coming decades, with fusion becoming more widely adopted. Increasing electrification, especially in transport, is a notable ambition, although this will be a slow process due to existing impediments to its adoption.