In 1862 we got the Gettysburg Address, in 1941 it was Roosevelt’s Day of Infamy and in 1983 it was Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire speech. This year it appears we’ll have to settle for Greta Thunberg’s “Blah, Blah, Blah!” keynote speech at the youth climate summit in Milan.
As bad as it was on the merits, it certainly suffers from bad timing. Europe has just started paying a huge price in part for caving in on the sorts of environmentalist demands that Miss Thunberg says are being ignored. Indeed, Europe is suddenly stocking up on all three fossil fuels, and paying exorbitant prices to do so. In turn, so-called “greenhouse gas emissions” (GHGs) will jump. And none of it was necessary, except that her fan base made it so.
“Net zero, blah, blah, blah. Climate neutral, blah, blah, blah. This is all we hear from our so-called leaders – words, words that sound great but so far, have led to no action or hopes and dreams. Empty words and promises.” So said the sour Swede.
In between her blahs and references to “bunny hugging,” she made fun of slogans used by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and American President Joe Biden. Biden, though, has not been in office even a year, and thus had no chance to implement climate change legislation (for better or worse). The US has been steadily reducing its GHG emissions nationally (down 13% since the 2007 peak) and per capita. UK emissions have also plummeted nationally and per capita, and with apologies to Eliza Doolittle, it’s kicking the EU’s bloomin’ arse.
In fact, the real “culprits” of increased warming are China’s Xi Jinping and (ready for this?) outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Thunberg provided little (albeit some) data, so here you go. Yes, GHG emissions have increased since the Kyoto Accord was signed in 1997, and again since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015. Ambient C02 is the highest measured. But neither accord was meant to stop, much less reduce overall emissions, merely to slow the rate of new emissions.
By this standard, the accords have apparently had a serious impact. GHG “emissions have increased, on average, by 1.1% per year, from 2012 to 2019, which is a markedly lower growth rate than those seen in the first decade of this century (2.6%, on average),” according to PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.
The biggest problem is China, which already accounts for 30% of global GHG emissions and twice the amount of the US, which is in second place. Further, China’s emissions are accelerating: its current carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have grown at their fastest pace in more than a decade, increasing by 15% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2021. China has made some truly spectacular promises, but they appear to be in the same category as their pledge to maintain Hong Kong’s freedoms.
“Yes, China is still categorized as a developing nation by WTO, they manufacture a lot of our products and so on,” as Thurnberg noted in May. “But that of course is no excuse for ruining future and present living conditions. We can’t solve the climate crisis unless China drastically changes course.” (China deftly countered by calling her a Western puppet, suggesting she was overweight (she’s not) and also therefore not really a vegetarian, whatever that means.
The rest of the world cannot compensate for China without drastic steps. We could revert to pre-industrial age economies. Or we could use technology to suck GHGs out of the atmosphere, a technology which does exist, but is ridiculously expensive. Or we could plant more trees, along with grasslands and rangelands that are more efficient CO2 sequesters, which is all well and good but again we just can’t keep up with China.
In fairness, China just wants to provide for its middle class the way the West has provided for its people. But it can be done, as I have argued elsewhere, without forcing the rest of the world back to oxen-drawn plows. Currently China gets 69 percent of its electricity from coal. But China obviously has the latest nuclear technology (begged, bought, or stolen). And while Bill Gates likes to point out that most of the world’s nuclear plants were designed with slide rules and adapted from naval reactors, China has some of the world’s most powerful supercomputers.
The Middle Kingdom already has 49 nuclear reactors in operation, third only to the US and France. It could launch a massive nuclear program imitating the French model of the 1970s and 1980s, a model that essentially eliminated French use of fossil fuels for electricity generation and made it a net exporter. Three-fourths of France’s nuclear infrastructure was built in just seven years, meaning China could likely do the same in five, which is about how long it takes to build a nuclear plant today.
As for Chancellor Merkel, she has led Europe in exactly the opposite direction. In 2000, nuclear energy from 36 plants provided almost a third of Germany’s electricity. That included the world’s most productive plant. Demand hasn’t risen much since then, so given other carbon-free sources such as hydroelectric and geothermal, it’s entirely conceivable that Deutschland could have phased out not just coal but oil and gas as well.
That’s especially true when we see that nuclear plants in the US have been able to wring ever more power out of the same plants, essentially doubling production. That’s called “nameplate capacity factor.” Capacity factors for US nuclear power plants are currently 92.5 percent, compared to only 55.9 percent in 1975. This improvement is one of the unsung successes of nuclear power, such that generating costs have dropped by about a third just since 2012.
But first the Chernobyl disaster hit in 1986, with perhaps 50 people quickly killed (almost all first responders) and maybe 4,000 more in the future with lower-dose radiation exposure according to a U.N. report.
But that plant was built by the same “who cares?” Soviets who apparently starved 3.9 million Ukrainians to death. That’s as opposed to American Three Mile Island technology, in which the 1979 meltdown led to no measurable health effects. But Chernobyl also prompted a German novel based on a fictitious local nuke plant disaster that may have become the most influential fiction in the country since Mein Kampf.
And then came the Fukushima, Japan disaster in 2011. A 9.0 magnitude earthquake resulted in a massive tsunami that caused meltdowns in a nuclear facility on the coast. Around 18,500 people died or disappeared in the quake and tsunami, with so far only one death attributed to radiation leakage. But we should expect a certain inaccuracy in the reporting given the nature of the events in question.
All countries have their particular angst. Never mind that Germany ranks quite low in seismic activity and doesn’t get a lot of tsunamis. But Germany’s powerful greens saw their opening, and Merkel, despite being a scientist, caved to their pressure. Now all German nuclear plants but six have closed, and they are scheduled to shut down next year. (Thunberg, for the record, has called nuclear energy “extremely dangerous, expensive and time consuming.”)
If Germany had kept building, it could have been fully nuclear with cheap energy to spare, which it could have exported to its neighbors. Instead, about a fourth of Germany’s electricity comes from coal, the overwhelming majority being lignite, the soft brown variety that produces the least energy, and creates the most air pollution and GHGs of any fossil fuel.
Yet about 44 percent of the lignite burned in the EU is consumed in Germany. Germany likes to boast of its high “renewable energy” use, yet as a country it’s the biggest emitter of GHGs in Europe. (In fairness, it also has the biggest population and isn’t the biggest emitter per capita.) It also doesn’t boast that its electricity prices including taxes are the highest in the world. They’re over double what Americans pay. Germans also pay over twice what Americans do per unit of heating gas.
In fact, all of Western Europe and maybe even Eastern Europe could be nuclear powered now. Yet Germany plays leader, and now even France has pledged to begin reducing reliance on nuclear power, albeit with a 14-year timeline.
So now Europe has made itself dependent on Russian energy. Close to half of extra-EU gas imports are from Russia, as is all of its extra-EU petroleum. That bolsters Putin’s Leadership for Life, Russia’s war on Ukraine, and its menacing military. It also makes the EU susceptible to blackmail and simple price-gouging.
Now winter is coming, and thanks to factors such as pent-up demand from lockdown recovery, low reservoirs at hydroelectric facilities, a low “wind season” in Europe and elsewhere, along with an inability to scale up other “renewables” above current levels, Europe (and China for that matter) finds itself in a bad way. American natural gas prices may increase 30 percent over last year’s price, but Europeans could be paying five times as much this winter.
So Europe is rediscovering coal and paying a fortune for the privilege, in no small part because of those not so blah, blah, blah carbon permits. Europe is even importing petroleum for its electrical grid. Coal prices are at their highest in nearly 13 years.
Now throw in overdependence on intermittent “renewables,” recovery from the lockdown economy, and any number of smaller problems, and Europe is suddenly experiencing an energy shortage. It’s buying up coal, gas, and oil to fill the shortfall.
And it’s not just for lighting and heat. UK supermarkets could face shortages of meat and other fresh food this month because soaring gas prices have caused a major US fertilizer manufacturer to suspend production, in turn switching off most of Britain’s source of carbon dioxide to the food and drink industry.
None of this makes for a clever slogan, so we can expect Ms. Thunberg to overlook just about all of it. But here in the real world, where real answers to real problems are essential, that’s probably for the best anyway. It’s difficult enough to figure these things out without the posturing of a self-important teenager sucking the oxygen out of the room.