As understanding with regards to the significance of climate action grows worldwide, the need for change becomes increasingly apparent. While ideas such as a personal carbon footprint are not entirely without merit, their scale pales in comparison to dealing with the driving factors behind climate change. The inordinate majority of greenhouse gases currently threatening the environment are a by-product of energy production. In particular more than 75% of the CO2 emitted in 2018 was a result of the use of fossil fuels, mainly coal, oil, and natural gas, used to generate the energy needed for a variety of essential purposes. These are often indispensable, and include the need to heat homes, construct infrastructure, transport goods and people, or manufacture products.
There is an urgent need for as many sectors as possible to switch from fossil fuels to electricity in a process called electrification. This can range from electric heaters and boilers to electric cars on a personal and family level, or more importantly on the industrial level, electric furnaces and engines among others. The reason for this need is that
electrification can potentially reduce carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions from the transportation, building, and industrial sectors... addressing emissions from these sectors is critical to decarbonizing the economy and, ultimately, mitigating the impacts of climate change.
While there is an evident necessity to rely on electricity for energy as much as possible, this change alone is not enough to solve the problem. That is because the production of electricity itself, despite incorporating some zero-carbon sources such as nuclear energy, or renewables like wind and hydropower, is for the most part reliant on burning fossil fuels. What then is the point of switching from fossil fuel energy to electrical energy, if to generate electricity we need to burn fossil fuels?
Instead of allowing for a variety of sources of pollution at the point of use, which would all have to be ameliorated individually per sector, electrification narrows down the problem to electricity production, thereby necessitating one solution instead of many. In fact, for some cases, such as transportation, electrification seems to be the only solution as even though alternatives to gasoline, such as biodiesel or ethanol, are more eco-friendly, they still emit greenhouse gases. Therefore, by transferring emissions from the disparate points of use to the single point of electricity production, we are left with a singular- although significant challenge: how to produce electricity in a sustainable manner.
Indeed, for the most part electricity production is reliant on fossil fuels, however there are examples of renewables and nuclear energy being used instead, even on a nation-wide scale. For example Sweden, in 2021, produced 43% of its electricity through hydropower, whereas France used nuclear power for 69% of its electrical needs. While there is no dispute over the benefit of renewable power sources, they are not exactly a cure-all solution. Not all countries are blessed with the topography to support hydropower. With regards to wind power, it is not always windy. Solar power, although potent, is in abundance during the middle of the day, even though it is in great demand during the mornings and evenings. In order to supplement the benefits of renewables it is perhaps essential to look to a different, more stigmatized source.
The nuclear matter
Nuclear power might yet prove to be a powerful ally in combating climate change, as it has the potential to generate a tremendous amount of energy, with considerably less drawbacks than fossil fuels.
Nuclear power plants produce no greenhouse gas emissions during operation, and over the course of its life-cycle, nuclear produces about the same amount of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions per unit of electricity as wind, and one-third of the emissions per unit of electricity when compared with solar.
It is understandable to fear nuclear power after the horrible disasters of Chernobyl and Fukushima, let alone due to the devastating reality of its military applications. A closer look however, reveals that nuclear power generation is vastly safer and cleaner than burning fossil fuels. Indeed, research states that fossil fuel consumption contributes to the premature death of 3.61 million people per year due to air pollution, let alone the deaths that are a result of mining, extracting, transporting, and processing fossil fuels. While this figure dwarves the deaths related to nuclear energy production, a counter-argument is that further fatalities have been avoided because the use of nuclear energy has stagnated. However, using a death per terawatt-hour (TWh) measurement, which includes people killed in accidents or by pollution, shows only 0.07 deaths per TWh. Compared to the 24.62 deaths per TWh that occur from coal, or the 18.43 deaths per TWh from oil, the contrast becomes apparent.
Humanity finds itself in a crucial situation of racing against time to combat the damage done by climate change. Because a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gases are the result of energy production, there is a real need to switch to electrical energy wherever possible. While this will not solve the problem alone, it will allow climate action to focus on finding the solution to one issue instead of many: that of clean electricity. To that end, it will be necessary to muster every eco-friendly tool available, particularly renewable and nuclear energy. Every step taken away from fossil fuels will be a step towards ensuring a world where life can thrive, and while we will not be out of the woods any time soon, the safeguarding of our environment is a goal worth striving towards.
tags, SEO, image descriptions