Science

‘Nuclear has a lot going for it while net zero will simply not happen’, says skeptical environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg

Tuesday 22 February 2022 12:18 pm

Bjorn Lomborg: “It is irresponsible to scare youths when the UN Climate Panel finds that even if we do nothing to mitigate climate change, the impact by the end of the century will be a reduction of an average income increase from 450 percent to 438 percent . A problem, but hardly the end of the world.”

Bjorn Lomborg is not your typical environmental thinker. A former Greenpeace activist, he is now frustrated with the state of our climate change debate – calling for constructive solutions rather than apocalyptic predictions.

So what are Lomborg’s solutions? City AM’s Michiel Willems finds out.

There is a lot to do about nuclear energy at the moment. What do you think of nuclear power as the future, especially in the light of new technology?

Nuclear has a lot going for it. It is currently the only way to deliver 24/7, scalable, near-CO2-free power. Compare it to the world’s two largest renewable power sources. Hydro power provides more than half the world’s renewable power, and provides 16 per cent of all global electricity, but it is difficult to scale up and has its own environmental problems. Most global energy is not electricity, the world’s largest renewable energy source is also its oldest, bioenergy.

Bioenergy is mostly just a fancy way of saying burning wood, which provides 60 per cent of all renewable energy and is especially problematic in poor countries where it leads to excessive indoor air pollution and deforestation.

“Nuclear is also one of the safest electricity technologies per kWh produced. This surprises many.”

This has been repeatedly documented in the scientific literature. Remember, coal releases more radiation during normal operations that does nuclear, because coal contains trace amounts of naturally occurring radioactive elements. Even great disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima are expected to result in less than 4,800 deaths by the World Health Organization and others, or fewer deaths than caused by coal fired power in four days.

So what about nuclear vs hydrogen?

Unfortunately, new nuclear power is currently very expensive. The strike cost for Hinckley C is at 10.6p/kWh and globally is estimated at around 16.7US¢/kWh. This is higher than almost any other energy source. While nuclear is the only real way to deliver low-carbon, safe and 24/7 power, it is currently just way too expensive. And for now, hydrogen seems to be too expensive.

What do you think the carbon reducing results are from windmills, particularly if you consider production and demolition?

CO2 reductions from wind turbines are often assumed to be 1-to-1, so if you produce a kWh with wind, it is assumed to reduce a similar kWh and emissions from the rest of the energy system. But actually, the wind energy is often not produced when you want it, and because it is subsidized, it makes wind energy cheaper to consume, so more is used. In total, 1% more wind energy only reduces emissions by about a third of one percent. But contrary to some online arguments, the time it takes a wind turbine to pay back its own input energy is less than a year of its 20-year lifetime.

ESG is obviously a buzzword in the City of London. What do you think, serious efforts or mere hollow talk and a PR tool for businesses?

Hollow tool. ESG is alluring because it suggests that you can get rich while doing good for the world. As usual, when something seems too good to be true, it is. Investing for doing good will sometimes generate higher returns, though clean tech is crashing right now, but if this was true in general, everyone would be doing good and you wouldn’t need ESG.

“ESG is alluring because it suggests that you can get rich while doing good for the world.”

And if you — more realistically — are taking a small performance hit while doing good, it turns out that you could have done much, much more good: You should simply have invested non-ESG with, say, 99 per cent of the investment, and given the last 1% to some of the world’s best, social investments, like tackling tuberculosis, malnutrition or bad education.

Is there a security benefit to renewable power? The current market shocks have exposed how reliant we are on natural gas and diversifying our energy mix with renewables would both minimize the role of gas and make us less dependent on Russia.

If you want to have energy security, you can obviously go 100 per cent renewable. Let’s disregard for the moment that it will be phenomenally expensive. Yet, going 100 per cent renewable does not make you energy secure. Currently the world has batteries to store a little more than one minute of its electricity consumption — after that, you will need mostly fossil fuels or face blackouts. Even by 2030, and with the world having increased its batteries 10-fold, we will still just have power for about 10 minutes.

This is why even climate-worried Europe gets more than four-fifths of its energy, not just electricity, from fossil fuels. Clearly, you could supply this energy safely with coal, which is not only abundantly available from many friendly nations, but also easily storable. If your primary focus is energy security, that would be the most obvious way to go.

Let’s stay with fossil fuels for a minute.

If you also worry about fossil fuels being low-carbon, it means most of the fossil-powered electricity will come from natural gas. The US has become more self-reliant with gas using fracking. Not only has that been a net-economic boon to the US (with total, environmental costs at about $25bn per year but benefits at about $90bn a year. It has also reduced US carbon emissions more than any other country over the past decade , mostly in the large-scale switch from coal to gas.

“Europe seems to have decided it doesn’t want secure coal, and that it doesn’t want economically and environmentally beneficial fracked gas. That is why it is stuck with Russian gas and in a very secure position.”

For the next decades where most of the world will still get most of its energy from fossil fuels, energy security is not mostly about renewables but about being smart on non-renewables.

McKinsey recently suggested reaching net zero targets by 2050 could cost 9trn per year, but aren’t there also concerns about the cost and expense required to adapt to climate change? Particularly in developing economies, which are more vulnerable to the consequences of climate change.

Yes, huge costs, for example.

There are definitely costs from climate change, which is why global warming is a net problem. But regardless of any realistic climate policies, the costs will remain almost the same for the next many decades because of inertia in the climate system. Remember, even if the entire rich world went net-zero today, it would reduce global warming in 2050 with less than 0.2°C, using the UN’s own climate model.

“Because the costs are so immense, it means net zero will simply not happen by 2050.”

The total cost envisioned by McKinsey is equivalent to spending half of all taxes collected by all governments every year. This would require governments to stop spending about half on schools, hospitals and all other items on the social menu, or increase taxes by 50%, either of which are simply political non-starters.

It also assumes that India and Africa will be willing to spend more than 10 per cent of their GDP every year on climate policies — again, entirely outside reality. Remember, India actually asked the rest of the world to pay them a trillion dollars before 2030 to carry on doing climate policy.

On current policy trends, mostly the rich world will deliver at high cost on some of its climate policies, which will reduce temperatures trivially. Sustained high and increasing energy costs makes the standard expensive climate policy unsustainable and robs it of its legitimacy. Politicians who promise yet more costs will eventually be booted from office.

“We need to be smarter. The challenge is that current climate policies are too expensive to be expanded in the rich world and copied in the developing world.”

Instead, we need to make green energy cheaper. This is done through a massive increase in research and development into both fourth generation nuclear, into fusion, into battery storage, solar, wind and many other great, but currently ineffective solutions.

It would be much cheaper than current climate policies, but it would be much more effective in the long term. If we could innovate one low-carbon energy technology to be cheaper than fossil fuels everyone, not just rich, well-meaning Westerners, would switch.

Do you think that the pursuit and development of renewable technology could lead to innovation and breakthroughs that could be a net positive for society and also reflect the best of free market thinking?

We should definitely develop better and especially cheaper 24/7 low-carbon power. We are currently not investing much more in the development of low-carbon technology (although another agreement at the Paris summit in 2015 promised that we should double that investment). And we should not believe that even strong climate policies drive up private investment.

“Total private, green R&D spending, even when investing hundreds of billions in renewables every year, only amounts to about $6 billion, less than a third of global government investments.”

That is why I have been championing for more than a decade, on the background of studies from forty climate economists and three Nobel Laureates, to more than quintuple global green R&D spending to $100 billion annually. This, really, is the only way to realistically, and effectively, fix climate change.

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