Nuclear power as a solution to Climate Pessimism

Stijn Bruers | 11-05-2023

I often admire researchers that think many steps ahead of your average altruist. A good example of this is the interview with Johannes Ackva on the 80,000 Hours podcast. Ackva is climate research director at Founders Pledge, a renowned research institution that conducts independent research on the most effective measures to combat climate change. In doing so, he sometimes comes up with recommendations that differ from the mainstream ideas stemming from the environmentalist movement.

One would think, that if you want to tackle the problem of climate change in the most effective manner, you should reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions as efficiently as possible. However, climate damage is not a linear function of temperature increase. The additional damage inflicted by climate change when the climate warms from 4°C to 5°C is greater than the additional damage when the climate warms from 1°C to 2°C. In other words, the damage inflicted by an extra ton of CO2 depends on how much CO2 has already been emitted and how much CO2 is currently being emitted by others. Economist Daniel Bressler once made a rough estimate of the mortality cost of CO2. According to this estimate, emitting 4,000 tons of CO2 – equivalent to the lifetime emissions of an average Dutch family of three – causes an additional premature death at some point in the next 80 years, most likely due to a heat wave. If other people emit additional CO2, the mortality cost increases. The number of individuals who die due to your CO2 emissions depends on how much CO2 I emit. If my emissions are high, yours become more lethal (and vice versa).

What are the consequences of this for climate policy? It would mean that we should primarily focus on reducing CO2 emissions in scenarios where the pre-existing emission levels are already high. If we can meet the climate goals and limit global warming to, say, 1.5°C, things wouldn’t be so bad. Take climate-friendly electricity production for example. Many climate activists believe that with renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, the electricity sector can transition to being climate-neutral. There is a strong chance, however, that we will not succeed in this by relying on renewable energy sources alone. We face challenges due to limitations in the power grid’s ability to handle different electricity sources and a lack of storage capacity. In this pessimistic scenario, the electricity sector risks emitting a lot of CO2 precisely at the moment when it is imperative to reduce emissions.

Advanced nuclear power might be able to reduce CO2 and act as a substitute for fossil fuels. This means that, to reduce emissions most effectively, it would be best to work in research and development of advanced nuclear power. Nuclear energy could act as an insurance policy against pessimistic climate policy scenarios. Maybe we don’t need to rely on nuclear power, and we can hit our targets with renewables alone. Just maybe, with climate policy focusing heavily on solar and wind we can limit warning to 1.5°C making additional reductions less pressing. But then again, maybe not. In that case, when CO2 emissions are high, avoiding an onslaught of emissions thanks to nuclear power becomes extremely valuable.

To conclude: we should invest more in research and development of climate-friendly technologies that are especially valuable in pessimistic scenarios where large CO2 reductions (with mainstream renewable technologies) fail, even if they are not the technologies that maximize CO2 reductions.

If you want to do something effective against climate change, you can donate via Doneer Effectief to their Climate Fund.  Every quarter, in consultation with Johannes (et al.), we will look at where your donated euro is worth the most at that moment in time on a global scale.

Stijn Bruers

Moral philosopher and rational ethicist

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