In April, Kirsty Gogan, director of EFH was invited to Sweden, where having a totally clean electricity grid is a nice problem to have. In terms of a clean energy transition, Sweden’s was, per capita, the fastest. Carbon emissions went down, GDP went up and Swedes enjoy some of the lowest fuel bills in Europe. Despite holding the record for having added the most amount of clean electricity generation within a given period (15 years), there has been plenty of debate in recent years about whether to replace one form of clean electricity (nuclear) with another (wind and solar). Lots of people I met, including Liberal parliamentarians, journalists, and industry reps, expressed frustration about this since it’s a circular argument. There is some relief that at last, the discussion has moved on. The grid is clean, reliable and cheap: what’s next? Transport? Heat? Industrial processes? Now it’s getting interesting.
Check out the slides for Kirsty’s talk at the Swedish Nuclear Society Trends for 2017 conference and read her speaking notes below.
Just imagine, for a minute, life without electricity.
You don’t have a way to run a laptop, mobile phone, TV, or a coffee machine. You don’t have lights, heat, air conditioning, or even the Internet.
About 1.3 billion people—18 percent of the world’s population—don’t need to imagine. That’s what life is like for them every day. When the sun goes down, it’s dark.
You can see this fact for yourself in this photograph of Africa at night taken from space.
We co-founded Energy for Humanity focused on two of the great environmental and humanitarian challenges we face in this century: how to dramatically cut carbon emissions to avoid catastrophic climate change within our own lifetimes and that of our children, and secondly, lifting billions of people out of poverty to achieve the modern standards quality of living.
Both of these challenges have one thing in common: the energy we use to power the world.
We have a long way to go. Right now: half of the world’s population lacks access to electricity, but quite rightly aspire to energy rich lives not only for household use, but also for modern energy services many of us take for granted – including water sanitation, refrigeration, industry and streetlights.
Access to electricity should, and will, grow. Today nearly three billion people cook over open fires fueled by wood, dung, coal, or charcoal. Children do their homework by candle light. The health consequences are severe: every year, indoor air pollution causes two million premature deaths, one million cases of chronic lung disease, and half of all of pneumonia deaths among children under the age of five.
Global access to electricity is rising: this is a good thing. However: We fossil fuels dominate global energy supply. Despite impressive growth, solar and wind combined provide just 1.5% pf total global energy.
So – yes: Energy efficiency will play a crucial role, but we cannot rely on it to solve climate. we need to not only replace our existing fossil fuel infrastructure, but probably double or triple it to meet rising global demand. The question we should be asking is where that energy will come from?
Even now: mainly from coal.
So, the truth is that environmentalism is in crisis. And, like all crises, the first step to solving it is admitting that there is a problem. After 25 years of successfully building public and political support for action on climate change – largely through the deployment of wind and solar coupled with energy efficiency – we have not succeeded in making a dent in the upward trajectory of glonal emissions. Not a dent.
So, we are being forced to admit that, despite some impressive localised victories, traditional environmentalist campaigns are not working, or at least not working quickly enough.
And so “new-environmentalism” is emerging – characterised by two features: firstly, a commitment to evidence-based decision making, and secondly, an optimistic hope that technology and innovation can help us alleviate the environmental challenges we face.
In practice, this means looking again at taboo technologies, like nuclear power.
This is not the same as being a techno-evangelist. New environmentalists do not support technology for its own sake, but as a means to an end. This is not about renewables vs nuclear. Or my pet technology is better than yours. Actually, our goal should be a technology neutral approach focused on larger outcomes.
If you believe that climate or air pollution or poverty or destruction of nature are the greatest risks – to human health, environment and well-being – then the question we should be asking is: how do we tackle those risks in the fastest, most feasible, most cost effective way possible? Starting from that point, it makes no sense to limit the tools at our disposal, based on an ideological opposition to some tools; insisting on, as climate scientist Ken Caldeira describes it: “as attempting to do something already extremely difficult, with one arm tied behind our backs.”
Actually, a strategy to solve climate change boils down to a simple two steps: clean up electricity and then electrify everything. And then there is a supplementary step, which is to eliminate waste by making everything as efficient as possible.
We know that nuclear energy is similar to wind in terms of its whole life cycle carbon emissions. And that among energy policy experts, there’s remarkably widespread agreement that tackling these challenges would be much, much easier if we could quickly and cheaply build lots of nuclear plants. It’s been done before. It’s possible to add very large amounts of clean electricity in a short time period given the right political will.
Authors of this study (Potential for Worldwide Displacement of Fossil-Fuel Electricity by Nuclear Energy in Three Decades Based on Extrapolation of Regional Deployment Data) Barry Brook and Stafan Qvist showed that “No other carbon-neutral electricity source has been expanded anywhere near as fast as nuclear”.
“No renewable energy technology or energy efficiency approach has ever been implemented on a scale or pace which has resulted in the magnitude of reductions in CO2 emissions that is needed to avert catastrophic climate change. This chart shows that GDP goes up as Co2 emissions go down over the nuclear expansion period. Real world experience shows that a replacement of current fossil fuel electricity by nuclear at a pace which might limit the more severe effects of climate change is technologically and industrially possible. Whether this will happen depends primarily on political will, strategic economic planning and public acceptance.”
So that’s the rational story. But, of course, we know that it’s not as simple as that. Much of the political discourse around climate and energy is politically loaded. When an issue becomes loaded with identity politics – whether it’s anti-nuclear lefty greens, or the climate sceptical right – the frame can strongly affect how an issue is perceived. This is called framing.
- Focuses and guides how people think about an issue
- Builds on shared values
- Rooted in common cultural stories, myths
- Communicated through values-based messages
- Facts, alone, fail to frame
- Established and reinforced through repetition
It’s important to realise that we are social animals our sense of safety and security come from our belonging to a tribe. When issues become identified with our tribal identity, it is very difficult to break that taboo.
We recently conducted some research in the United States, which examined the current discourse on energy and climate. “100% renewables” is by far the dominant frame, along with the idea that clean energy – meaning solar and wind – can be the future – will be the future.
The 100% renewables paradigm has been extremely successful as a vision for transforming society. It’s a seductive values proposition. Research tells us that people are more attached to the values that a technology represents than the technology itself.
Research tells us that renewable energy is seen as being fair, efficient, human scale, close to nature, clean and representing the future.
Nuclear power is seen as the opposite of all these things!
Nuclear is portrayed largely as a dinosaur, a thing of the past and grouped with dirty, polluting sources like coal and oil. But the remarkable thing we found, I think, is that the 100% renewables discourse focused on families, and children and people and the quality of the local environment. The lesson here is that we need to stop talking so much about technology, and start talking about people.
Our social media analysis shows that there are echo chambers or communities of people who are talking to each other who already agree with each other. There is some conflict between groups, and the discourse includes variations of uncertainty and disagreements about technical points, but much of this is unlikely to cut through beyond expert groups.
The networks are tribal and divided. Our job is to find common ground, create safe spaces and build bridges.
What we have seen with the 100% renewables vision is that it has given primacy to technology, over and above climate. When you care about evidence, and start to crunch the numbers – you start to question the reality of the 100% renewables vision to meaningfully reduce fossil fuel dependence. By stepping outside of a technology frame, and into one focused on larger outcomes e.g. solving climate within the time we have left; tackling air pollution; providing low cost, clean power to millions of people; improving life chances for women and children throughout the world: Then it is possible to create a shared space for collaboration, as we did with the low carbon alliance, which I will tell you about now.
Public opinion in the UK is aound 40%. Dipped after Fukushima, but bounced back.
But look what happens when you change the frame. Support nuclear AND renewables: support bounced up from 40% to 75%.
So when building support for all zero carbon technologies, how can we change the frame to create a safe space. In the UK, as director of communications for the industry, we created an alliance between the renewables, carbon capture and storage, and nuclear industries. Our first joint statement, calling for the decarbonisation of electricity by 2030, generated huge amounts of press coverage, including the front page of the Financial Times. Greenpeace were quoted welcoming the initiative and the story was covered positively in both the left wing pro-renewable press, as well as the right wing pro-nuclear press. To be clear, Greenpeace had not changed its stance on nuclear: but had chosen to prioritise supporting the wider aim of decarbonising electricity.
This led to Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace including the Nuclear Industry Association logo on campaign material calling for the 2030 target of clean electricity generation – as you can see in the slides. This was totally unprecedented. In addition to some mutual trust having been established: this was a sensible political calculation by the NGOs that by including nuclear energy within the suite of solutions to the larger problem, they were more likely to gain traction with the renewable-sceptic/pro-nuclear political right if nuclear was included.
There is one more lesson from this low carbon industry alliance, which I am happy to report continues to this day: the industries continue to collaborate and host joint events, often appearing on panels together to make the case for larger outcomes: action on climate, clean air and affordable electricity for consumers and business. It is so much more powerful for a renewables advocate to say we need nuclear in the mix than a nuclear representative saying we need nuclear in the mix.
In many ways, the messenger is as important as the message.
At the COP 21 Climate Summit in Paris, Energy for Humanity organised and hosted a series of high profile, well-attended events, including a sold-out screening of Pandora’s Promise and a major press conference for four of the world’s most renowned climate scientists. The scientists — Kenneth Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, James E. Hansen of Columbia University and Tom Wigley of the University of Adelaide — used the news conference to build on an argument they first made as a group in a 2013 open letter to environmentalists. The Guardian published a related op-ed from the four.
“It’s time to stop using the sky as a waste dump. The climate doesn’t care whether the electricity comes from a wind turbine or a nuclear reactor. The climate just cares about carbon.” Dr. Caldeira
This event generated extensive global media coverage about the need for nuclear to be recognised alongside other low carbon technologies as a key part of the solution to climate change. More than 60 major news articles were published. The Guardian op-ed co-authored by the scientists was shared more than 16,000 times, attracting more than 500 comments. Coverage reached an estimated audience of more than 800 million. This includes the Daily Mail website, with an audience of 200 million unique visitors per month, which ran the Associated Press article and attracted 1400 comments.
So why did these eminent scientists decide to come to Paris?
“I’ve come to see now that the magnitude of the problem is so great that we can’t afford to leave technologies unused that can potentially help.” Dr. Ken Caldeira
For nearly two decades nuclear power has been officially excluded from the multilateral UN climate negotiations process. Environmental groups successfully lobbied to keep nuclear out of the ‘clean development mechanism’ and other Kyoto mechanisms to garner carbon credits. Ever since then, nuclear has been off the table and the green groups who have a strong voice at the annual negotiations – together with big name backers like Al Gore and Bill McKibben – have insisted that a 100% renewables pathway is the only acceptable carbon mitigation option. That has become the mantra repeated by everyone, even the current UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres.
“It is wrong to pit renewables against nuclear power. We need all hands on deck.” Dr James Hansen
But in light of the urgency of tackling climate change and nuclear power’s essential role in limiting temperature rises, the scientists argued that only a combined strategy employing all the major sustainable clean energy options — including renewables and nuclear — can prevent the worst effects of climate change by 2100, such as the loss of coral reefs, severe damages from extreme weather events, and the destruction of biodiversity and ecosystems worldwide.
In their words:
“Nothing should be off the table.”
This isn’t about us and them. As environmentalists, we can focus on what we have in common, on our shared values and shared goals. Partly as a result of our work in Paris, we were v chuffed to have been shortlisted for the Business Green Leaders NGO of the Year Award in 2016. This acknowledged our shared mission with the wider green movement. It cannot have been an easy decision for the judging panel who no doubt experienced some discomfort. An endorsement of this kind – from within the tribe – is powerful. Much of the debate takes place inside echo chambers: likeminded people talking only to those who already agree with them. It takes courage to step outside the tribe, and courage for others to acknowledge the value in doing so.
The Green movement grew up out of the peace movement – which grew in protest to both atomic bomb testing, and to the threat of nuclear war. The peace movement was defined the strong presence of women. Opposition to nuclear weapons became conflated with opposition to nuclear power stations. The culture of secrecy and links to the military programmes reinforced this lack of trust.
We can see this in the very pronounced gender gap in support for nuclear today. Men are TWICE as likely to support nuclear as women.
After working on nuclear policy inside government and for the industry, I realised that only politicians and industry (mainly men) were making the case for nuclear: neither enjoy high levels of public trust! That is one reason why I worked hard behind the scenes to create the first UK chapter of Women in Nuclear. The messenger is as important as the message. It’s not enough to provide the facts. It’s not even enough to be an expert. There needs to be trust and this stems ether from an ability to build a relationship with your audience, or by virtue of your belonging to a group. The right balance of warmth and competence has been shown to be the golden combination. You can’t fake it. Authenticity is key.
Meeting in person and building relationships is key. I would love to see the industry working directly with other technologies, environmentalists, think tanks, economists and policy makers, to crunch through some scenarios for deep decarbonisation – that are affordable, publicly acceptable and achievable with the time scales necessary.