We used fire to release energy from the Sun stored in the wood from trees.
Then we discovered better things to burn.
Energy-packed ancient sunlight buried underground.
Burning that has set us free.
But fire has surely taken us as far as it can.
The reason we aren’t flying to other planets is the same reason we’re endangering this one.
Every day we burn the equivalent of all the plants growing on this planet over a year to meet our energy needs.
But that’s not to say that energy use is of itself necessarily a bad thing.
Indeed by many measures it’s an extremely good thing indeed.
In every country where the per capita energy use is greater than about half the European average then adult life expectancy is greater than 70 years, literacy rates are greater than 90%, infant mortality rates are low and more than one in five of the population are in higher education.
So the story of energy use is a complicated one.
On the one hand, obviously, energy use is important and to be valued, it’s the foundation of our modern civilisation, and on the other hand, if we generate our energy mainly by burning fossil fuels then it can be a bad thing.
Now in the short-term of course we can increase the efficiency of our energy usage.
But in the long-term, if we aspire to continue to advance as a civilisation, if we want to give every citizen of the world a quality of life that is as good as or even better than mine, and if ultimately we want to build a space-faring generation and journey to the stars then we have to find a better way.
In the short-term, we can move to cleaner electric motors, but because we burn fossil fuels in power stations, that simply moves the problem upstream.
So what we face is not an energy crisis but an energy conversion crisis.
Renewable energy might be part of the solution, but I believe there’s a far more promising long-term alternative.
~ Professor Brian Cox in Human Universe (episode 5)
Professor Cox, the high-profile particle physicist at the University of Manchester, was recently welcomed to Australia. His confrontation regarding climate change with new federal One Nation senator and Project Leader of The Galileo Movement Malcolm Roberts on the Q and A panel show became the highlight in the minds of many.
Climate change is a polarising cause in Australia, and politically it is overwhelmingly claimed by the Greens. But while the above-quoted narration from Brian Cox’s BBC series was followed by a segment focused on nuclear fusion research, it is immediately obvious that the climate-concerned professor has different views to the Greens on matters of energy supply.
How would an alternative episode play out if it featured not senator Roberts but senator Ludlam? Could we expect the Greens deputy leader to engage and listen — unlike Roberts — as Cox explains the associated statistics, engineering and safety? Or might it be reversed, with Scott Ludlam flourishing graphs out of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report: an innocuously-titled yet unreservedly anti-nuclear publication supported by European green organisations — the nuclear equivalent of the Galileo Movement?
There will in coming decades be a need to significantly reduce carbon emissions and as a result to decarbonise Australia’s electricity sector. Nuclear power, as a low-carbon energy source comparable with other renewable technologies, may be required as part of a lower carbon electricity system. While the development of other low-carbon technologies will influence whether nuclear power would be required to meet Australia’s future energy needs, it would not be able to play a role unless action is taken now to plan for its potential implementation. The Commission recommends that the South Australian Government pursue removal at the federal level of existing prohibitions on nuclear power generation to allow it to contribute to a low-carbon electricity system, if required.
The existing federal-level prohibitions, within the EPBC and ARPANS acts, were instigated at the end of the 90s by the Australian Greens. But they would be hard pressed to point to how the environment has been protected or biodiversity conserved, let alone justify the potential delay in historically-demonstrated decarbonisation.
Granted, nuclear energy has suffered from a lack of popularity in the last decade or two. But if all it took was a popularity contest then the country would already be completely solar powered (in reality, rooftop solar panel installation is decelerating, and solar farms still require government assistance). When a renowned science communicator like Brian Cox happily endorses it — and no less than a royal commission states that Australia should lay the groundwork now so as to benefit ASAP from the large ultra-low emission capacity added through nuclear plant deployment — it’s well past the hour when self-styled political climate champions should stop fighting and start listening.