Friday, July 06, 2018

Radical climate realism: nuclear or degrowth?

For all its shortcomings, the past has one distinctive advantage over the future, namely its facticity. Rather than relying on the hypothetical, the past offers tested insights into what has historically been possible. Given this quality of certainty, it is somewhat surprising that climate and energy analysts have shown so little interest in examining previous episodes of rapid emission reductions. Instead, there has been a tendency to look solely to the future, imagining that renewable energy sources in particular will make possible a “carbon law” that cuts global carbon emissions in half during each coming decade (Rockström et al., 2017:1269). While the science may be clear that such dramatic reductions are now necessary to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement (Peters et al., 2017), present trends show that not only is the deployment of renewable energy beginning to follow a logistic rather than exponential curve (Hansen, Narbel & Aksnes, 2017), actual fossil displacement by renewable energy has been marginal at best (York & McGee, 2017).

New data for 2017 confirms that the share of fossil energy in the global energy mix remains steady at around 80 percent. Despite a much publicised effort, the German “Energiewende” has not led to any significant decarbonisation as emissions have stayed roughly flat since its inception in 2011, prompting the German government to admit that it will miss its 2020 climate target. In order to meet the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting warming to a maximum of two degrees, carbon emissions worldwide would have to see sustained emission reductions of at least five per cent per year.

Reviewing historical emission trends, only a handful of countries have been able to achieve such rapid reductions. In the five years between 1979 and 1984, Sweden was able to cut its emissions at an average rate exceeding seven percent per year thanks to the deployment of nuclear energy. In roughly the same time period, Belgium and France sustained similarly impressive decarbonisation rates, in both cases thanks to the roll out of nuclear energy. Yet, potent as nuclear energy may be to clean up a country’s energy mix, these reductions are still dwarfed by the effects of prolonged economic contraction. For instance, following the downfall of communism, emissions in Romania fell at an average rate of almost ten percent per year between 1989 and 1994. Similarly, countries such as Bulgaria, Ukraine and Belarus have all seen extended periods of economic contraction with sustained reductions in excess of the five percent per year needed to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement.

While one may have a range of political and ethical objections against the use of reduced economic activity as a mitigation tool (Karlsson, 2013), others willingly embrace such a future of “degrowth” (Kallis et al., 2018). Regardless of the normative implications, it remains the case that episodes of deindustrialisation and economic contraction have led to emission reductions of a magnitude that only the deployment of nuclear energy has come close to rivalling. While a number of countries have seen less pronounced but still significant emission reductions in recent years, much of those reductions can be attributed to the global displacement of carbon-intensive production or one-time transitions from coal to natural gas (as in the United States).

Failure to rein in emissions would mean that climate engineering, and Solar Radiation Management in particular, may quickly become necessary to prevent a full-blown climate catastrophe. As such, relying on mere conjecture and the hope that renewable energy on its own can decarbonise the global energy supply represents a formidable gamble. In contrast, if turning to the proven experience of the past, the choice seems to stand between two very different futures, one that directly confronts consumer capitalism and one that uses nuclear energy to quickly displace fossil fuels worldwide (Qvist & Brook, 2015). Both these futures are most likely politically unrealistic. Yet, if the world is serious about preventing dangerous climate change, it seems important to recognize that the limits to effective mitigation may not so much be technological as political and cultural.


Hansen, J. P., Narbel, P. A., & Aksnes, D. L. (2017). Limits to growth in the renewable energy sector. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 70, 769-774.

Kallis, G., Kostakis, V., Lange, S., Muraca, B., Paulson, S., & Schmelzer, M. (2018). Research on Degrowth. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 43(4), 1-26.

Karlsson, R. (2013). Ambivalence, irony, and democracy in the Anthropocene. Futures, 46, 1-9.

Peters, G. P., Andrew, R. M., Canadell, J. G., Fuss, S., Jackson, R. B., Korsbakken, J. I., ... & Nakicenovic, N. (2017). Key indicators to track current progress and future ambition of the Paris Agreement. Nature Climate Change, 7(2), 118-122.

Rockström, J., Gaffney, O., Rogelj, J., Meinshausen, M., Nakicenovic, N., & Schellnhuber, H. J. (2017). A roadmap for rapid decarbonization. Science, 355(6331), 1269-1271.

Qvist, S. A., & Brook, B. W. (2015). Potential for worldwide displacement of fossil-fuel electricity by nuclear energy in three decades based on extrapolation of regional deployment data. PloS one, 10(5), e0124074.

York, R., & McGee, J. A. (2017). Does Renewable Energy Development Decouple Economic Growth from CO2 Emissions?. Socius, 3, 2378023116689098.

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