Richard H. Brodhead
Richard H. Brodhead
I will have to include this report in my upcoming case study about Japan’s nuclear energy situation…
While I don’t envy Japan’s position, I have faith that the people of Japan can provide a valuable lesson in what can happen and how to rebuild following such a disaster. Unfortunately, it seems they will be leading the way in showing the world with how to cope with energy situations that may become prevalent in the 21st century.
New Data: Nuclear Down, Carbon Intensity Up in JapanJapan’s nuclear power fleet has sat idle since a powerful earthquake struck the nation in March 2011, driving a sharp increase in fossil fuel imports and a spike in the nation’s carbon intensity.
By Mark Caine and Jesse Jenkins
Japan’s nuclear power fleet has sat idle since a powerful earthquake struck the nation in March 2011, driving a sharp increase in fossil fuel imports and a spike in the nation’s carbon intensity, new data shows. Together, these changes have battered Japan’s trade balance, increased the carbon intensity of its energy supply, and raised important questions about its future CO2 emissions trajectory.
Japan’s 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster have exerted substantial impacts on the nation’s economy and energy system. Given Japan’s reliance on nuclear power, its lack of domestic fossil resources, the magnitude of the earthquake and tsunami, and the technical and political implications of a major nuclear crisis, these impacts were largely predictable.
But although it was clear early on that Japan’s triple disaster signalled major economic and technical changes in Japan, only recently has good data become available to shed light on the specifics of the changes underway.*
Two notable trends emerge from this data, both relating to Japanese energy supply. Together, these trends are exerting profound impacts on Japan’s trade balance, the carbon intensity of its energy supply, and its future CO2 emission trajectory.
Carbon Intensity Spikes as Nuclear Plants Idle
First, the carbon intensity of Japan’s energy mix has spiked following the shut-down of most of the nation’s nuclear power fleet, which previously provided about 30 percent of the nation’s electricity and anchored the nation’s low-carbon energy plans. Currently, just 4 of the nation’s 50 remaining nuclear reactors are online. To replace this lost generation, Japanese utilities have ramped up imports and use of coal, oil, and natural gas, while industrial consumers have been more reliant on diesel generators to guarantee reliable energy supply.
I would venture to say this article hints at on of the challenges of humankind in general; it has applications from global finance to climate change…right down to why people don’t make important changes in their day-to-day lives.
…If the problem has not been experienced before, the public is not convinced of the potential costs of inaction. And, if action prevents the problem, the public never experiences the averted calamity, and voters therefore penalize political leaders for the immediate costs that the action entails. Even if politicians have perfect foresight of the disaster that awaits if nothing is done, they may have little ability to persuade voters, or less insightful party members, that the short-term costs must be paid.
Talk is cheap, and, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the status quo usually appears comfortable enough. So leaders’ ability to take corrective action increases only with time, as some of the costs of inaction are experienced.
Calamity can still be averted if the costs of inaction escalate steadily. The worst problems, however, are those with “inaction costs” that remain invisible for a long time, but increase suddenly and explosively. By the time the leader has the mandate to act, it may be too late.
While this might seem like another trite pleading for eco-fairness, it’s actually getting at something deeper, in my opinion. The article is getting at the awareness issue that is ultimately at the core of both ‘slavery’ and how we deal with our energy needs. Slaves were once the source, and their usage drove society, built pyramids and empires and societies. Fossil fuels do take some of that role now - which is why I like the remarks about “presenting alternatives” - but I think, at this time, the transition towards seeing how we use fossil fuels now as “problematic” or “immoral” is not close by. Which ultimately will mean there’s a lot more work to do, and suffering to take place, before the lesson is learned for the course of mankind’s history…
Why is all of this relevant for climate change policy? Our contemporary economies have become extremely dependent on fossil fuels, just as slave societies were dependent on their slaves – indeed far more than the latter ever were. As one scholar remarked: “That US Congressmen tend to rationalise fossil fuel use despite climate risks to future generations just as southern congressmen rationalised slavery despite ideals of equality is perhaps unsurprising.”
It should thus come as no surprise that there is so much resistance to climate science. Our societies, like slave-owning societies, have a vested interest in ignoring the scientific consensus. Pointing out the similarities between slavery and the use of fossil fuels can help us engage with the issue in a new way, and convince us to act, as no one envisages comfortably being compared with a slave-owner.
Furthermore, because of the striking similarities between the use of slaves and of fossil fuels, policymakers can find inspiration from the campaigns to abolish slavery and use them to tackle global warming. For example, the history of the abolition of slavery, in the UK at least, suggests that an incremental approach and the development of compromises worked better at moving the cause forward than hardline stances.
The evidence also implies that slavery came to be challenged and finally abolished when people became aware of an alternative. This alternative – steam power – was of course a great moral improvement until we came to know the consequences of fossil fuel consumption. This, in turn, suggests that we will restrain our use of fossil fuels if we can favour a new energy transition and find clean sources of energy – and that we should concentrate our efforts on developing “green” technologies at the same time as reducing our consumption of fossil fuels.
Jean-François Mouhot is a visiting researcher at Georgetown University. He is the author of Past Connections and Present Similarities in Slave Ownership and Fossil Fuel Usage, published in the journal Climatic Change, and the book Des Esclaves Energétiques: Réflexions sur le Changement Climatique.