Climate change is adversely affecting all parts of the earth. There have been dramatic increases in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) globally since the industrial revolution of the 19th century. The planet warms faster as more GHGs are added to the earth’s atmosphere.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, expressing the global scientific consensus on the matter, warns that “global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air…The decisions we make today are critical in ensuring a safe and sustainable world for everyone, both now and in the future.”
With GHGs (CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, other gases – see epa.gov/ghgemissions/overview-greenhouse-gases) continually added to the earth’s atmosphere, the planet continues to warm at an increasing rate. Unfortunately, much larger changes to the earth’s climate are projected despite the current pace of global climate change mitigation.
Thus, an increase in the pace of climate change mitigation (such as increased global investment in, and implementation of, clean and sustainable energy technologies) is imperative to slow the pace of climate change. In this article, the focus is on just a few (of many) categories of climate change, all of which represent significant adverse impacts to people and ecosystems.
Adverse climate feedback loops will lead to ‘tipping points‘ that might cause ‘runaway climate change‘. The way to avoid this scenario is for governments, industries, and the private sector throughout the world to increase investments exponentially in climate mitigation technologies.
Adverse Climate Feedback Loops
As the planet’s temperature rises, ocean temperature also rises in some regions globally, while simultaneously droughts and wildfires increase in other regions, and adverse climate feedback loops occur globally. For example, as the earth’s temperature and ocean temperature rise, there is also an increase in the size and frequency of intense storms and flooding. The increase in extreme storms leads again to an increase in the very factors that lead to more extreme wet weather in the first place (evidence of an increase in adverse climate feedback loops).
At the same time that extreme storms pummel some regions, global warming leads to extreme drought in other parts of the planet, and severe wildfires result. The larger wildfires and drought dry out land and make way for more adverseclimate feedback loops (higher average temperatures, more extreme drought, more extreme wildfires, etc…). An increase in severe drought globally also has knock-on effects, such as devastation to agricultural food crops throughout entire regions of the planet.
From the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization: “The percentage of the planet affected by drought has more than doubled in the last 40 years and in the same timespan droughts have affected more people worldwide than any other natural hazard. Climate change is indeed exacerbating drought in many parts of the world, increasing its frequency, severity and duration. Severe drought episodes have a dire impact on the socio-economic sector and the environment and can lead to massive famines and migration, natural resource degradation, and weak economic performance.” FROM – fao.org/land-water/droughtandag
Global warming presently is primarily due to human-caused GHGs from the combustion of fossil fuels. Essentially, rises in GHGs will continue to increase average global temperatures at a continuously higher rate.
The impacts and pace of global warming simultaneously accelerate adverse feedback loops, which have the effect of increasing the pace of global temperature rise.
Thus, the hope to reduce the consequences of climate change is tied to the successful global effort to reduce GHGs.
Consequences of global warming and related adverse climate feedback loops include increases in extreme weather events of all kinds, such as:
increased severity of hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones
disruption of global weather patterns, such as jet stream disturbances that send colder weather further south (i.e. ‘polar vortex‘)
chaotic increases in rainfall and flooding in parts of the world, while simultaneously other parts of the world experience –
drought, heatwaves, wildfires, and devastation to agriculture
increases in toxic algal blooms; especially in freshwater ecosystems such as lakes, but also in coastal marine habitats
extinction of wildlife species and ecosystems; degradation of wildlife habitats and biodiversity globally
Sea level rise is already threatening some regions of the planet, especially during extreme high tide and flooding events, and especially for low-lying communities on coasts and islands. Melting ice of all sizes, and warming oceans, adversely affects the lives of marine wildlife species and ecosystems. Read more about the adverse effects on marine wildlife from global warming below.
Ocean acidification has led to mass die-offs of coral reefs, home to a diverse set of marine species. Compounding adverse marine changes have affected coastal ecosystems, island-nations, and communities, causing them to face increasing exposure to storms, floods, as well as the aforementioned marine ecosystem issues. All of these factors have led once-thriving marine ecosystems and coastal communities to be in a state of distress, struggling for survival.
Increase in Wildfires
Wildfires are forecast to continue to increase in frequency, duration, and range. Increasing global temperatures will continue to increase the number and level of wildfires worldwide. The increasing number of wildfires will, in turn, cause a continued increase in global temperatures. This is a diabolical adverse feedback loop of increased atmospheric GHGs and adverse effects of global warming; a continuous cycle of global environmental devastation.
Despite the seemingly unusual high frequency of the raging wildfires that took place recently, it is alarming that there are many more large wildfires predicted over the coming couple of years. In California and Australia, as well as throughout the entire planet; warmer temperatures, drier land conditions, and extreme dry gusty wind are expected to expand the length and increase the intensity of wildfires.
Thawing permafrost will release large amounts of potent GHGs, such as methane, increasing global warming. Thawing ground (for example, in Siberia) is also likely to disrupt municipal building sectors and other infrastructure on a regional basis; for regions where human activity and permafrost are both present. The recent Arctic fires are an example of an adverse climate feedback loop; the fires set loose significantly high amounts of the potent GHG methane that had been locked in permafrost; increasing global warming and the potential for more severe Arctic fires.
As part of the ongoing global battle against climate change, almost 200 countries have set greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) reductions targets, or nationally determined contributions (NDCs). They’re fairly self-explanatory; by a specified year, a nation aims to reduce its carbon emissions by a certain amount (compared to a previous, specific year).
Every 5 years, member nations of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC) are required to submit revised NDCs, which are encouraged to progressively be greater GHG reduction targets, reflecting higher levels of ambition. Some national commitments are made more frequently, and more quickly than others. The latest round of NDCs came before COP26 in Glasgow Oct 31-Nov 12, many made well before in the case of more ambitious nations. Most members of the UNFCCC managed to make their improved NDCs public before COP 26.
For example, the EU group of nations have committed to a collective target of 55% carbon emissions reduction by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels) – known as ‘Fit for 55‘. Countries worldwide have upped their original carbon reduction pledges made in the run-up to the Paris Climate Accord to new pledges reflecting greater climate ambition (described below). Many countries have taken the even more ambitious step of also setting a net zero emissions (carbon neutrality) national target (usually of 2050, but some nations have set different net zero target dates, described below).
The Paris Climate Accord is not legally binding, so actual binding NDCs must originate from national, state, and regional governments. (When not put forward by a national government, but rather by state or regional governments; these commitments are simply referred to as GHG reduction pledges). In the case of the EU, NDC targets and the 2050 net zero target are codified into law by legislation that is passed by the European Commission – the European Climate Law (effective July 2021).
Many European nations (& California) had legally binding net zero targets, as well as ambitious GHG reduction pledges, in place well before China or the US. (Historically, China & the US are the 2 biggest emitters of GHGs in the world). China has set their net zero target for 2060 (in September 2020); while the United States has committed to net zero by 2050 (with President Biden taking office, in January 2021). It is expected that NDC and net zero commitments that the Chinese national government makes, will be codified into legally binding law in China. The US Congress would need to pass legislation, much as the European Commission has, in order for its NDC and net zero targets to become legally binding.
Net zero pledges made by governments around the world represent ambitious goals to keep global warming below 2°C (that’s 2°C rise above pre-industrial temperature averages), and ideally to 1.5°C this century; making good on the latest IPCC climate targets. Here is a map with countries’ various degrees of progress to net zero:
Historically, fossil fuels have brought developed nations a higher standard of living, however, renewables will effectively raise the standard of living for developing nations with cleaner, cheaper, abundant energy. Climate change will disproportionately affect developing nations, which have done the least to cause the problem. The solution is for all world nations, developed and developing, to simultaneously make the clean energy transition, and enjoy the benefits of clean energy development.]
Australia differs from Canada and the EU in that the country has not legislated ramped-up targets. The Australian government has officially announced that the initial NDC set in the Paris Climate Accord is “…a floor…” (at least 26% GHG reduction by 2030 compared to 2005 levels), and that the country is on course to “…overachieve on this target…”; as well as a national goal to achieve net zero “…as soon as possible”. Australia has committed to net zero by 2050 just ahead of COP26 in Glasgow, however, the commitment hasn’t been legislated, so it isn’t legally binding.
Ahead of the Paris Climate Accord, China initially announced it would be lowering carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60% to 65% from the 2005 level. China is currently the world’s largest emitter of GHGs, and its attempts to meet its carbon intensity targets are rated ‘inadequate’ by the Climate Action Tracker. Despite this, China now aims to hit the target of net zero by 2060; and is trying to stay on course to reach its original NDC target.
India initially pledged to reduce the emissions intensity of its national GDP by 33-35% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. India also intends to produce a significant amount of additional forest and tree cover (for carbon sequestration, in order to achieve carbon neutrality). India also intends to invest a substantial amount in renewable energy and energy efficiency; but on this and indeed their overall emissions targets, India can be vague on how it plans to achieve them. India has yet to make a net zero commitment, despite the over 100 other nations that made net zero commitments before COP26 in Glasgow.
Until recently, Japan had been slow to reduce its national GHG emissions, despite an ambitious pledge of 80% emissions reduction by 2050. However, in November 2020, Japan made an even more ambitious pledge of netzero by 2050 (or…”as close as possible to 2050″). Like China, Japan has been dependent on coal (especially after increasing coal energy on the national grid following the Fukushima nuclear disaster). However, Japan now says it is committed to shutting down its coal-fired power plants; and developing more renewable energy in its place. The Japanese government says that “Japan will strive to achieve a decarbonized society by as close as possible to 2050“. Japan has an interim NDC of 26% GHG reduction by 2030 (compared to 2013 levels).
Here is a summary of the most recent nationally determined contributions from nations discussed in this article, heading into COP26 in Glasgow:
COP and CAT (Conference of the Parties and Climate Action Tracker)
Countries set interim targets (mostly targetting 2030), and now largely many major world nations are en route to net zero. Upon setting an initial interim target in the Paris Climate Accord, countries are supposed to ramp up their interim 2030 NDC targets on a 5-year basis (or ideally, more frequently), and with the latest IPCC guidance; strongly encouraged to set net zero targets. Every 5 years, all UNFCCC member nations are required to submit new NDCs. Due to COVID-19, the year 2020 was just a low-profile virtual meeting; and the formal UNFCCC COP (in which all new NDCs from all UNFCCC member nations is due) will be COP26 in Glasgow.
The CAT Consortium runs the Climate Action Tracker, which grades each nation on how useful its promises actually are. Each nation’s NDC shapes to ‘current policy’ scenario in the CAT chart below. The ideal ‘optimistic’ scenarios are based on the most ambitious net zero emissions by 2050 targets being fully realized. How are current climate policies worldwide (NDCs) going to actually reduce global greenhouse gas emissions as world nations try to achieve net zero GHGs (carbon neutrality) in order to stop global warming? This chart, from Climate Action Tracker (CAT), models current climate policy outcomes, as well as optimistic net zero targets, to 2100>>>
Both nuclear and renewable energy are needed in the global energy mix to help fight climate change.
In order to cut down on the share of fossil fuels in the world energy mix, nuclear is necessary. A total of WELL OVER 40% of the world’s energy mix for renewable and nuclear energies combined is needed to reach significant greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. Over 40% is not a final goal, but represents a realistic initial goal on the path towards the target of over 70% clean, zero-emission global energy generation.
To achieve a significant GHG emissions reduction target for the planet, the world needs nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is going to have to augment truly environmentally-friendly, renewable energy in the effort to dramatically reduce fossil fuel use.
How much of the world’s energy is nuclear?
Nuclear reactors provided 10% of the world’s total energy sources, on average annually, during the last decade. 13 countries get at least 1/4 of their energy from nuclear, including France (which gets around 3/4 from nuclear), Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland, and Finland.
Nuclear energy is also put to great use in the US, France, China, Russia, and South Korea, among other countries. Now is probably as good of a time as any in this article to mention a couple of major drawbacks (to put it mildly) of nuclear energy.
Namely the danger- catastrophic disasters due to large-scale accidents like the one at Fukushima, Japan, enrichment of uranium in order to create nuclear weapons, and the difficult, expensive process of securely managing the disposal of nuclear waste.
The former major problems mentioned (and less waste generated by the nuclear process – Gen IV theoretically can just run on spent uranium) are resolved in the 4th generation nuclear reactor designs, discussed below.
Current reactors, mostly Gen I & II nuclear plants, along with several operational Gen III plants, rely on uranium and water (to cool the plants). Therefore, these nuclear plants still deplete water supplies, create nuclear waste, use a fuel source that can be enriched to convert the material into a bomb, and represent a source of potential danger.
The largest nuclear disaster in history was the Chernobyl disaster (although the risk of nuclear disaster is dramatically minimized in a Gen III plant, and eliminated in Gen IV nuclear. Some Gen IV designs dramatically cut the need for water to cool plants, as well).
Here’s a brief snippet from the World Nuclear Association summarizing nuclear energy’s current role in the global energy mix:
The first commercial nuclear power stations started operation in the 1950s.
Nuclear energy now provides about 10% of the world’s electricity from about 440 power reactors.
Nuclear is the world’s second largest source of low-carbon power (29% of the total in 2018).
Safer, cheaper, still energy abundant and emissions-free designs that use relatively benign energy sources (thorium or depleted uranium), and much less water for cooling the reactor than previous designs and current operational nuclear plants, are being envisioned in 4th generation nuclear, and are currently available in a few 3rd generation nuclear power plant designs.
Using a small fraction of the water as previous designs, Gen IV nuclear plant designs, are safe, cost-effective, environmentally friendly, and still offer tremendous potential for energy production. Molten salt reactors using depleted uranium, nuclear waste from other plants, or thorium as a complete replacement of uranium, are being planned in Gen IV nuclear plant designs. 4th generation designs (and many 3rd generation plants, both planned and operational) are autonomous, smart plants, with heightened safety measures.
Thorium is being looked at as a fuel source for new nuclear reactors, as it is abundant, much less radioactive than uranium, and creates by-products from burning the fuel source that can be used again in the reactor. There is a higher level of thorium than uranium on the planet.
Thorium, as well as depleted uranium, are being designed with relatively lower up-front capital costs. Little manpower is needed to run and maintain future, advanced 4th generation nuclear plants, due to the autonomous computer technology set to be deployed in the plants.
Summation of the benefits of advanced nuclear reactors
Nuclear reactors designed to run on thorium, and depleted uranium, have a very low chance of being used to develop nuclear weapons, produce less radioactive waste, are abundant fuel sources; and are safer, more cost-efficient in addition to being energy-efficient, and cleaner vis-a-vis energy generation compared to current widely deployed nuclear reactors.
Thorium, in particular, is being looked at by developing nations like China and India because of the relatively low cost, increased safety, an abundance of the material, and tremendous energy potential of this energy source. The U.S. has huge amounts of thorium, in places like Kentucky and Idaho (as well as depleted uranium); and there are large quantities in countries like India, Australia, and Brazil.
The U.S., Europe, and even some of the aforementioned developing countries, also have large stockpiles of depleted uranium. More depleted uranium is being produced every day, which would work in many of the 4th generation designs. A few 3rd generation nuclear plants are already operating, and some more are projected to be developed and ready for operation by 2025. 4th Gen nuclear promises to produce abundant, low-cost energy safely, and with little environmental impact.
In order to meet increased demand for low-emission, safer, lower up-front capital investment, high-efficiency energy sources, there has also been an increased global interest in light water small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs). Benefits of nuclear SMRs include-
Small modular reactors offer a lower initial capital investment, greater scalability, and siting flexibility for locations unable to accommodate more traditional larger reactors. They also have the potential for enhanced safety and security compared to earlier designs. Deployment of advanced SMRs can help drive economic growth. From- USDOE Office of Nuclear Energy
One other “good” thing about nuclear energy production is that there are fairly low marginal costs. There are little to no negative externalities with regard to the actual energy production (i.e. little to no GHG emissions); however current nuclear power plants do generate toxic waste. Ongoing costs are fuel and maintenance of nuclear plants; the uranium to fuel the plants, and water to cool the plants, and toxic waste disposal facilities.
Large toxic waste disposal locations are necessary to bury the radioactive waste so people aren’t exposed to potentially cancer-causing radiation. Nuclear power plants do also carry high up-front capital costs.
Even when looking at the downsides of current technologies for nuclear energy production, 4th generation nuclear promises to be safe, cost-efficient (cost of new nuclear fuel is low), and environmentally friendly, with a very high energy production capacity given a relatively small quantity of nuclear fuel need for energy production (whenever 4th-gen nuclear gets built).
New reactors can (theoretically) run on spent uranium and even thorium. 4th generation nuclear has entirely safe, cost-efficient designs. Actually, the levelized cost of energy production from new, advanced nuclear reactors that are already available, deployed, and generating nuclear energy, is looking viable.