Image: Francis Mckee, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Edited by Inroads.
On the one hand, liberal greens will tell you that the world is ending – but that we must not use nuclear power, an abundant source of clean energy, to stave it off. On the other hand, conservative greens will tell you that the world is ending, but that we can’t burden people with a carbon tax or a gasoline tax to slow global warming.
On a third hand, suburban greens will tell you that the world is ending, but that they don’t want any windmills, solar farms or high-speed rail lines in their backyards.
On a fourth hand, most of today’s leaders will tell you that the world is ending, so at Glasgow they’ve all decided to go out on a limb and commit their successors’ successor to deliver emissions-free electricity by 2030, 2040 or 2050 – any date that doesn’t require them to ask their citizens to do anything painful today.
This is not serious – not when you’re talking about reversing all the ways that we have destabilized Earth’s systems, from ice caps and ocean currents to coral reefs and tropical forests to the density of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is pretend.
Serious was how we responded to Covid-19, when it really did feel like the world economy was ending: We fought back with the only tools we have that are as big and powerful as Mother Nature – Father Profit and New Tech.
— New York Times columnist Tom Friedman¹
Friedman succinctly makes an argument with which I strongly agree. With exceptions, the political leaders speaking at the Glasgow UN Conference of the Parties (COP26) were not “serious.” Perhaps the most ominous evidence of a lack of seriousness is paragraph 36 of the Glasgow Climate Pact:
36. (The Conference of the Parties) Calls upon Parties to accelerate the development, deployment and dissemination of technologies, and the adoption of policies, to transition towards low-emission energy systems, including by rapidly scaling up the deployment of clean power generation and energy efficiency measures, including accelerating efforts towards the phase-out phase-down of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, recognizing the need for support towards a just transition.²
Optimists note that this is the first mention in a COP statement of eliminating use of coal to generate electricity; realists note that, at the last minute, India and China amended the text by substituting “phase-down” for “phase-out.”
Whatever the interpretation, paragraph 36 is not “serious” in Friedman’s terms. His implicit definition of serious is that politicians invest their political capital in launching programs that (1) are undertaken now, as opposed to being scheduled to ramp up over time or come into effect in future decades, and (2) have the potential to make a major impact in lowering greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Where should we start?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a UN organization responsible for assembling climate change scientific studies. In a 2018 report targeting policymakers, it put forward four pathways that would probably hold the increase in average world temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius relative to preindustrial estimates (see Box 1).
IPCC pathways to limit future temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsiusa
The first scenario requires that innovations can simultaneously reduce energy demand and increase living standards, especially in the global South. A downsized energy system enables rapid decarbonization of energy supply. Afforestation is the only carbon dioxide removal option considered. There is no need for either fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage or bioenergy.
This scenario requires faith in international cooperation with a broad focus on sustainability including energy intensity, human development, economic convergence, shifts toward sustainable and healthy consumption patterns (e.g., substitution of plant-based protein for red meat), low-carbon technology innovation and well-managed land systems. It requires some limited societal acceptability for carbon capture and storage, and bioenergy.
This scenario implies that social as well as technological development follows historical patterns. In other words, final energy demand continues to grow. Central to this pathway is that we support universal acceptance of nuclear power. The scenario projects a fivefold increase in use of nuclear, a ninefold increase in nonbiomass renewables and a sevenfold increase in carbon capture and storage plus bioenergy. (At present, adding carbon capture from fossil fuel power generation roughly doubles the cost per kilowatt-hour).
A resource- and energy-intensive scenario in which economic growth and globalization lead to widespread adoption of greenhouse gas–intensive lifestyles, including high demand for transportation fuels and livestock products. Emissions reductions are mainly achieved through technological means. We need faith in new technology removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, faith in carbon capture and storage and faith in bioenergy fuels.
a Summary of pathways defined in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5℃ Approved by Governments (Geneva, Switzerland: Author, 2018), p. 14.
Each of these pathways requires policies that, at present, are highly unpopular in high-income countries or depends on technological innovation that may or may not materialize. Pathway 1 requires reduced world energy demand, a massive increase in forest cover and emphasis on increased living standards in the global South. Pathway 2 requires high levels of international cooperation, lower energy intensity and a major shift in diets from meat to plant-based protein. Pathway 3 assumes extrapolation of historical trends in energy use. Central to this pathway is a massive increase in the share of energy derived from nuclear power as well as an increase in nonbiomass renewables and in carbon capture and storage. The fourth requires optimistic trends in technology for CO2 removal from the atmosphere and faith in carbon capture and storage.
The value of the pathways is to illustrate what “serious” means. My choice is Pathway 3. The case for it is that the majority in all countries – developing or high-income – will never agree to “phase out” or even “phase down” fossil fuel energy without a reasonable substitute. Pathway 1 requires Brazil, Indonesia, countries in tropical Africa and Russia, among others, to halt illegal logging and find ways to expand forest cover. It also requires that the global North reduce energy demand and leave room for the global South to increase its energy demand and the contingent GHG emissions. All good ideas, but they require Scandinavian quality of governance. Pathway 2 requires that the world abandon meat, especially red meat. Good luck in persuading the majority across the world to become vegetarians, or perhaps eat chicken along with vegetables, fruit and pulses. (No fish! Substituting fish for meat accentuates the pressure on world fish stocks.) The IPCC is dubious about realization of the technological innovations required by Pathway 4.
As with the other pathways, Pathway 3 poses obstacles. Relative to 2010, it assumes a doubling of nuclear power capacity by 2030 and a fivefold increase by 2050. What about disposal of spent fuel? What about more Fukushimas? What about the history of cost overruns on ex ante construction cost estimates? An obscure white paper answers these questions adequately. The good news about this pathway is the consensus among engineers that (relatively) small modular reactors (SMRs) are much safer than large earlier designs. Furthermore, engineers expect that use of standardized modular components will enable lower construction costs per megawatt capacity than earlier designs for much larger reactors.
In 2018, a committee composed of a half dozen Canadian power companies as voting members and Natural Resources Canada as a nonvoting member published a white paper on the potential to construct multiple SMRs.³ While the white paper addresses the technical questions, it does not address the major problem: public opinion in most high-income countries, including Canada, is opposed to expansion of nuclear power. One recent Canadian survey found overwhelming support for substituting renewable and “clean” energy for fossil fuel–based energy, but only 21 per cent were prepared to endorse nuclear as a clean energy option.⁴
Despite public attitudes, nuclear is making a comeback among some of the world’s “deep thinkers.” The well-respected Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) publishes carefully researched reports on numerous U.S. policy issues. In 2018, UCS published a monograph advocating expanded investment in U.S. nuclear power capacity.⁵ In its November 13 issue, The Economist published an editorial and two articles on the potential of nuclear power in reducing greenhouse gases associated with power generation. All three are positive. Bill Gates has decided to put serious money behind his pronuclear advocacy and is investing half the cost of a $4 billion modular nuclear reactor to replace a coal-fired plant in a Wyoming coal town. (The U.S. government is paying the other half.) Gates is partnering with Warren Buffett on other nuclear projects.⁶
And in Canada? The white paper mentioned above and a more recent “action plan” are not on the Natural Resources Canada website.⁷ Nominal action plan supporters include six provinces and territories (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, PEI, New Brunswick, Yukon – but not British Columbia or Quebec), major provincial power companies in supportive provinces, a few universities (not including my university, Simon Fraser), several Indigenous organizations and municipalities, civil society groups, industry associations, heavy industry (e.g., Suncor), engineering firms and would-be SMR vendors (e.g., CANDU). You are forgiven if you have not heard of this “action plan.” It is probably the least visible climate change policy initiative developed in Ottawa.
Neither Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson nor Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault is likely to ask my opinion on how to activate the SMR “action plan” – and change public opinion. However, I would be delighted to forgo my consulting fees if one or both want advice. Here are a few strategic arguments:
- Wind and solar power are valuable renewable nonfossil energy sources, but solar does not generate power at night and wind must blow. Hydro and nuclear are the two Canadian sources of significant “dispatchable” power available at all times. Unfortunately, there remain few unexploited sites for large-scale hydro dams.
- While Canada gets most of its power from non–fossil fuel sources, it still gets nearly a fifth from coal, natural gas and petroleum. Over this decade, Canada could eliminate nearly all fossil fuel–generated electricity by building 100 SMRs.⁸ An investment by Ottawa of, say, $50 billion over the next decade might be considered “serious.” Construction jobs for SMRs could be a suitable substitute for many jobs linked to fossil fuel power generation (see table 1).
- The estimated levelized cost per megawatt-hour of electricity generated by SMRs is probably similar to that for natural gas or hydro. There are many SMR designs on the drawing board, and no consensus on optimal design. Hence, there is considerable uncertainty about the range of unit costs of energy generated by SMRs. By making a commitment to build multiple SMRs in Canada, we can contribute to developing optimum designs (see figure 1).
- Canada was a leader in the mid-20th century in nuclear power technology, and could become a leader again. Since Canada generates 15 per cent of its power from nuclear plants, it has considerable engineering capacity in nuclear power generation.
- A commitment to invest in nuclear power would, in time, probably generate an export potential. If Canada was prepared to invest heavily in multiple SMRs – some based on Canadian designs, some on designs from elsewhere – and thereby eliminate domestic fossil fuel power generation, we would within a decade build a comparative advantage over other countries in constructing and managing SMRs. If SMRs become widespread, Canada would be in an ideal position to export its expertise.
- Canada could designate aid to SMR construction in developing countries as a major priority for our foreign aid budget. Eliminating the 18 per cent of Canadian electricity currently based on fossil fuels should be an initial goal. Most developing countries rely on fossil fuel–based power, and lack of adequate power capacity is a major impediment to their economic development. (“Load shedding” refers to the frequent shutdown over many hours of regions of a country because system demand exceeds capacity. It is one of the most widely understood English words among the poor in the global South.)
Pursuing serious climate change policy inevitably exposes a country to potentially losing out in some future unpredictable collective coordination game. I have sketched the potential of Canada promoting the IPCC’s Pathway 3. I acknowledge the risk. Others may prefer to sketch out one of the other IPCC pathways – or invent an altogether new pathway. Whatever the option, if serious, it will entail significant financial and political investments now, with uncertain future benefits.
For more from our Inroads 50 feature on climate change, click to read A Carbon Tax that Pays the Cost of Climate Change, by Marvin Shaffer and John Richards.
¹ New York Times, November 17, 2021.
² United Nations, Framework Convention on Climate Change (Glasgow Climate Pact), November 13, 2021.
³ Canadian Small Modular Reactor Roadmap Steering Committee, A Call to Action: A Canadian Roadmap for Small Modular Reactors (Ottawa: Author, 2018), pp. 47–48.
⁴ “When Canadians were asked to pick their top three climate solutions, renewables and adoption of cleaner energy technologies by industry came first and second, at 57 and 48% (in a survey). Nuclear placed second-last in a field of nine options, with 21% support” (Nuclear Industry Survey Shows 86% Public Support for Federal Investment in Clean Energy, The Energy Mix, September 4, 2020).
5 Steve Clemmer, Jeremy Richardson, Sandra Sattler and Dave Lochbaum. The Nuclear Power Dilemma: Declining Profits, Plant Closures, and the Threat of Rising Carbon Emissions (Cambridge, MA: Union of Concerned Scientists, November 2018).
6 Kate Duffy, Bill Gates’ Nuclear Startup Picks a Wyoming Coal Town for its 1st Advanced Reactor, Which Will Cost $4 Billion, Insider, November 18, 2021,
7 Canada’s Small Modular Reactor (SMR) Action Plan.
8 In 2017, there was approximately 35,000 megawatts of fossil fuel generating capacity in Canada. Nuclear replacement would require one hundred 350-megawatt SMRs (calculations based on Statistics Canada, Installed Plants, Annual Generating Capacity by Type of Electricity Generation, Table 25-10-0022-01 .