Monday 20 June 2011

Japan Nuclear Fallout: Global Carbon Emissions Likely to Rise

Fukushima Nuclear Disaster
Japan's nuclear crisis has started rubbing on to nuclear programs of other countries. Germany has already announced its plans to close down its nuclear plants by 2022. Italy's people have recently voted to block revival of its nuclear power plants. Italy's nuclear power plants were shut down by a 1987 referendum after the Chernobyl disaster.

Elsewhere, notably in United States, public pressure on governments to close nuclear plants is also on the rise. There are concerns about safety, social and environmental costs and ambitious civil nuclear plans in the fast growing economies of China and India. 

This has presented a catch-22 situation for climate change watchdogs. A decline in the contribution of nuclear energy to meet electricity requirements would have a devastating impact on global carbon emissions. 

The energy related carbon emissions in 2010 were estimated to be 30.6 Gigatons (Gt), a 5% jump from the previous record year in 2008, when the levels reached 29.3 Gt. This is also the highest ever recorded figure. 

Moreover, IEA reports that 80% of projected emissions from power sector in 2020 are already locked in, as they will come from power plants that are currently in place or under construction today. This is a serious setback to efforts to limit global increase in temperature to 2 degrees Celsius, as agreed by nations at Cancun climate talks in 2010. This, in turn, translates to keeping the long-term concentration of green house gases in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million of CO2 equivalent. 

To achieve this goal, the global energy related emissions in 2020 must not exceed 32 Gt ! This means that over the next 10 years, emissions must start showing a declining trend.

This development had also intensified a sense of urgency at the Bonn climate change meeting and would play a major role in the run-up to the Durban climate negotiations. 

Fukushima nuclear disaster has opened another chapter in controlling energy-related carbon emission. Abandoning nuclear energy projects by some nations could spell disaster. The pressure on coal would increase manifold, as it is the next best alternative. This would further pump-up carbon emissions and in fact increase emissions instead of reducing them. It is estimated that Germany's nuclear moratorium would increase emissions by 8 Mt.

This would only hasten the speed at which we would be inching closer to the 'point-of-no-return'. 

While this view can be countered by pledging increased investments on renewable energy as planned by Germany, much needs to be understood how much the countries in question are prepared to align their policies to substitute nuclear energy with other alternatives. Germany would invest more in wind energy projects and develop additional capacity to substitute nuclear power sources. But can other nations follow the same strategy?

Japan, has had the worst experience of heavily relying on nuclear power. The shift to alternate sources would be hard and difficult to implement in the absence of a strong focus on renewable sources. France on the other hand draws almost 80% of its power from nuclear sources. China plans to generate 80 Gwe from nuclear sources by 2020. India, though lags behind China, too falls in the league with plans to generate 64,000 MW by 2032. Currently, nuclear power contributes only 4.2% of the total electricity generation. This figure is expected to rise to 9 % in 25 years.

Whatever a nation's peoples decide with regard to continuance or discontinuance of nuclear power plants, there has to be a clearly articulated policy on alternate energy sources. This is needed to ensure a smooth transition. It would not be a 'take it' or 'drop it' approach but a well planned phase out of nuclear power without 'spiking' carbon emissions.

With a very narrow margin left, any knee-jerk reaction by nations would only raise emissions.

The author is Vice President (Sustainable Strategy) at ThinktoSustain and can be reached at

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