Problematic approaches to climate

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Numerous attempts to address the climate crisis have been proposed and/or acted upon since the issue first came to public notice. Personal decisions not to fly or eat meat have been one type of response already discussed in the previous chapter. Other personal or lifestyle changes that have been widely adopted include, for instance, the transition to LED light bulbs which use less electricity than traditional bulbs.  

There has been a big emphasis on home insulation and other forms of energy conservation and improved efficiency. There has also been a move to more efficient cars which get more miles to the gallon, and to hybrid cars which run on electricity that is powered by gasoline.[1]

All of these efforts had, and still do have, the potential to reduce carbon emissions. But none of them alone or together can actually achieve our emission reduction targets for 2030 or for 2050, because they are not adequately addressing the largest and most important source of those emissions: the continued burning of fossil fuels.[2]

Some of these solutions may help toward the short-term goal of cutting immediate emissions, but will not help us reach net zero by 2050. For example, one of the big climate campaigns in the early 2000s was the “Beyond Coal” initiative to shut down coal-fired power plants and replace them with gas-fired ones. Switching from coal-fired power plants to gas-fired ones can lead to significant carbon reductions, since burning coal creates much more carbon than burning gas. However, gas is still a fossil fuel and a major cause of carbon emissions, so reducing reliance on coal while increasing our dependence on gas is not a long-term solution and will not get us to net-zero by 2050. Only the phasing out of gas as well as coal can do that.

Other proposed climate solutions might help us achieve net zero in the long term, but are completely useless in achieving a serious reduction in our emissions in the short term. Building an entire new fleet of nuclear power plants, for instance, would take decades, even if there were not other reasons to reject this as a solution (see below). And it’s unhelpful to expect unproven technologies like carbon capture or other forms of geoengineering to be sufficient. Even if they proved effective in the long term, they will do little to reduce our emissions in the short term.

As explained in the last chapter, to prevent climate catastrophe in the long term, we need both the short-term 50% reduction of emissions and the medium-term reduction of emissions to net-zero. Just aiming for one or the other will not get us to where we need to be.


As mentioned briefly in the previous chapter, one of the most misleading “solutions” to the climate crisis involves burning biomass to generate electricity.[1] Biomass is a fancy term for wood and/or agricultural waste or other forms of waste, including municipal solid waste that is incinerated instead of going into a landfill. Worldwide, there are more than 4,500 power plants burning biomass, representing 74.6 GW of electricity generating capacity.[2] That includes 120 biomass plants in the US, with a capacity to generate 4.2 GW of electricity.[3] As percentages, those amount to roughly 6% of electricity generation globally[4] and about 1.3% of electricity generating capacity in the US.[5]

Biomass has been defined by collective agreement of the world’s governments as a “renewable” resource because forests and crops that are cut down can theoretically grow back again. There is nothing “clean” about burning biomass, however. According to Partnership for Policy Integrity, biomass plants produce as much as 150% more carbon dioxide per MW of electricity than coal-fired plants.[6]

For decades now, the carbon footprint of biomass has been obscured by a little accounting trick that has allowed the carbon emitted from biomass to be considered “neutralized” by the equivalent amount of carbon that will eventually grow again as new trees.[7]

Burning wood and waste products to generate electricity is a problem on two fronts. First, it involves carbon emissions that are not being counted and therefore are not even identified as a source of the problem. Second, where it involves cutting down forests in order to provide the wood for burning, it is undermining one of the most important carbon sinks we have to mitigate against the emissions going into the atmosphere.[8] Trees take carbon out of the atmosphere and thus reduce the overall effect of carbon emissions. Biomass is simply not a solution for producing electricity on a large scale.[9]

At long last, some steps are being taken to address this issue. In December 2022, the government of Australia, representing the largest economy to do so, acted to exclude electricity produced from “native forest wood waste” in counting toward their Renewable Energy Target.[10] The State of Massachusetts has also now removed woody biomass from its Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard.[11]

However, biomass continues to be promoted as a climate solution around the world, including in the US, where billions of dollars have been allocated for new biomass plants in the Inflation Reduction Act, for instance (see below).


Biofuels are a similar problem. They include ethanol, made from corn, biodiesel made from vegetable oils and animal fat, green diesel made from algae, and methane made from manure. All biofuels emit carbon when used for fuel, just as fossil fuels do. Again, an accounting trick has been used to hide the emissions of biofuels by claiming that the carbon emissions are “neutralized” by the fact that the plants from which the fuel was produced can be regenerated to absorb the equivalent amount of carbon emitted.[12]

One of the most important changes needed at the international level is a re-categorizing of biomass and biofuels as carbon emitting activities that should be monitored just like all the other carbon emitting activities of each country. Plans to reduce carbon emissions would then need to include cuts to biomass and biofuel use as well as cuts to fossil fuel and other greenhouse gases.

There has been surprisingly little interest in tackling the problem of biomass and biofuels among climate campaigners thus far, partly because the emissions are so hidden from view.

[1] Biomass also refers to wood burning stoves and open fires for heating and cooking, but here we are talking about biomass power plants for producing electricity. Biomass heating and cooking may well remain in the mix of energy uses over the long term, compensated by carbon sinks that enable us to still achieve net-zero emissions overall.

[2] There are many related terms used for measuring electricity. “Generating capacity” generally refers to the amount of electricity a power plant is capable of producing, measured in GW, while “electricity production” is the amount of electricity actually produced in a given time period, measured in GWh. See Gill, T. (2023, July 6). A Guide to Biomass Power Plants. The Eco Experts; Marketing VF Ltd.

[3] Biomass Magazine. (2022, November 21). U.S. Biomass Power Plants. BBI International.

[4] Bains, P., Moorhouse, J., & Hodgson, D. (2023, July 11). Bioenergy. International Energy Agency.

[5] EIA. (n.d.). Electricity explained. U.S. Energy Information Administration.

[6] Partnership for Policy Integrity. (n.d.). Carbon emissions from burning biomass for energy. In PFPI. 

and orchestrator. (2022, May 12). Biomass plant CO2 emissions – an explanation. Forest Defenders Alliance; Partnership for Policy Integrity.

[7] See also Carbon Trade Watch. (2012, May 13). Nothing Neutral Here: Large-scale biomass subsidies in the UK and the role of the EU ETS – carbon trade watch. Carbon Trade Watch.

[8] Researchers at Clark University have found that an area of North Carolina and Virginia has experienced net forest cover loss since Enviva, the world’s largest producer of wood pellets, moved in, contrary to Enviva’s claim that “forest inventories have increased” since they arrived. See Williams, C. (2022, February 14). Forest Clearing Rates in the Sourcing Region for Enviva Pellet Mills in Virginia and North Carolina, U.S.A. Southern Environmental Law Center.

[9] The time lags inherent in re-growing forests cannot be a replacement for burning biomass, since their re-growth timeline for sequestering capability exceeds our available window for reducing our emissions.

[10] The Hon Chris Bowen MP. Native Forest Wood Waste removed from Renewable Energy Target. (2022, December 16). Commonwealth of Australia.

[11] Feldman, L. (2022, August 12). Climate activists celebrate new Mass. law ending subsidies for wood-burning power plants. MassLive; Advance Local Media LLC.

[12] At least corn and other sources of biofuels grow back a lot faster than trees do. Nevertheless, the burning still produces greenhouse gases that need to be addressed. See EIA notes at:

EIA. (2022, November 7). Biomass explained. U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Carbon Capture and Storage, or CCS,[1] is an attempt to isolate the carbon from the emissions of existing fossil fuel power plants (and other industrial facilities) and then store it or otherwise neutralize it so it can’t contribute to climate change.[2] The most popular CCS storage plans to date involve injection of the carbon into sandstone rock formations.[3] While this could be an effective solution, scientists are still researching the long-term implications and possible side-effects of doing this on a large scale.[4]

Some argue that no other solution will reduce the carbon in the atmosphere to a sufficient extent to meet the targets, and others argue that even after the world achieves net-zero emissions, there will still be a need to pump as much of the existing CO2 out of the atmosphere as we can, using CCS technologies. [5]

Attaching CCS to a biomass plant is a particularly attractive option at the moment,[6] partly because of the loophole described above which already counts biomass as giving off “no” emissions. Biomass coupled with CCS, known as BECCS (or BioEnergy with Carbon Capture and Storage), can therefore appear to be sequestering much more carbon than it actually is, since the carbon it takes out of the atmosphere is not being counted when it goes back into the atmosphere.

The other main contender for CCS is called DACCS, or Direct Air Capture and Carbon Capture and Storage.[7] This involves taking carbon dioxide directly out of the air and processing it so that it can be stored permanently underground.[8]

CCS is now also referred to as “abatement.” It is increasingly discussed as a way of retaining fossil fuel infrastructure that also captures and stores carbon while phasing out the use of “unabated” fossil fuels. This would mean “abated” fossil fuels remaining as a source of energy more or less indefinitely, without any need to curtail the massive global infrastructure that goes along with burning fossil fuels. All we would have to do is make sure that the carbon dioxide and other gases coming out of the chimneys and smokestacks and exhaust pipes are “abated” before going into the atmosphere.

Technical and economic challenges to the large-scale use of CCS technologies have prevented more widespread application thus far, although 30 projects are already in operation, and 164 are in some stage of development in 22 countries.[9] Billions of dollars are being invested in developing this technology, including from the Inflation Reduction Act (see below).[10]

Coal power with CCS 

Perhaps the most alarmingly ironic use of CCS is when the carbon captured from coal-fired electricity generating plants (there are four)[11] is used to enable the extraction of even more fossil fuel. The Petra Nova coal plant near Houston, Texas went live in 2017 with a CCS system that they claim removes 90% of the CO2 emissions from the flue gases emitted by the plant. The captured carbon is then pumped into the ground to help push more oil out of a nearby oil field, increasing daily oil production tenfold from 500 barrels a day to 5,000 barrels a day. [12]

At the Boundary Dam Coal Power Station in Saskatchewan, Canada, up to 90% of the CO2 from one of its 8 chimneys is similarly captured and pumped underground, again to aid in the recovery of more oil from a nearby oil field.[13] The remaining CCS projects in operation as of 2014 were all using the captured CO2 to extract more oil out of the ground.[14] 

Extracting CO2 from natural gas

A total of 10 CCS projects in 2014 were using CCS technology to extract CO2 from natural gas fields where the concentration of natural gas is insufficient to use as a fuel unless the CO2 is removed from it.[15] In other words, CO2 capture and removal in these cases is an essential and integral part of the process of refining natural gas for use as a fuel.

The capture part of CCS is thus being used to generate yet more carbon emissions, while the storage part remains problematic. None of the CCS projects described above have yet to demonstrate the viability of actually storing the carbon permanently underground.[16]

The promotion of CCS is based on an assumption that fossil fuels will continue to be part of the “energy mix” of the future and that removing as much carbon as possible from the burning of fossil fuels is therefore a reasonable ambition. It could be argued, however, that focusing political and financial attention on CCS merely legitimizes the continued reliance on fossil fuels at a time when the world needs to move swiftly and decisively away from them.[17]

[1] Carbon capture is also known as carbon sequestration or carbon removal. There are numerous other terms and acronyms related to this concept, including Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage (CCUS), Direct Air Carbon and Capture (DACCS) and Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS).

[2] A more promising form of carbon storage is to inject it into concrete and other building materials, but this is still an unproven technology. See Fiekowsky, Peter (2022), Climate Restoration: The Only Future that will Sustain the Human Race, Rivertowns Books, p.83 ff.

[3] The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). (2013, May 14). Could carbon dioxide be injected in sandstone? Would it stay there? ScienceDaily.

[4] Jalilavi, M., et al. (2014). Artificial Weathering as a Function of CO2 Injection in Pahang Sandstone Malaysia: Investigation of Dissolution Rate in Surficial Condition. Scientific Reports4(1).

[5] Global CCS Institute. (2018). The Global Status of CCS. In Global CCS Institute.

[6] Fajardy, M., & Greenfield, C. (2023, July 11). Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage – Energy System. IEA; International Energy Agency.

[7] also known as DACSS, or DACS, CCUS, or just DAC.

[8] The Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy. (2018). DACCS Carbon Removal Fact Sheet. School of International Service at American University.

[9] Steyn, M., et al. (2022) 2022 Status Report. Global CCS Institute.

[10] Volcovici, V. (2015, November 5). Carbon capture projects worldwide rise to 15: report. Reuters.

[11] According to the IEA, there are three, including the Boundary Dam in Canada and two in China. PetroNova is not included. Greenfield, C. (2023, July 11). Coal. IEA; International Energy Agency.

[12] See US Dept of Energy description of the project: U.S. Department of Energy. (n.d.). Petra Nova – W.A. Parish Project.

[13] See SaskPower’s description of the project: SaskPower. (2023). Boundary Dam Carbon Capture Project.

[14] Evans, S. (2014, October 7). Around the world in 22 carbon capture projects. Carbon Brief.

[15] This total includes several projects which then used the CO2 to also extract more oil from nearby oil fields, as described (and counted) in the previous section.

[16] “Permanent” means the carbon dioxide won’t leak back into the atmosphere over the coming centuries or millennia. The carbon in fossil fuels has of course been locked underground for millions of years.

[17] For alternative perspectives on CCS, see for instance Greenpeace UK. (2008, January 3). The problem with carbon capture and storage (CCS). Greenpeace.

Nuclear Power

Some prominent climate activists have embraced nuclear power as a solution to the climate crisis.[1] Nuclear power generates electricity without the use of fossil fuels and in the process creates no direct greenhouse gases.[2] So it is not difficult to see how its proponents can spin nuclear power as a “green” form of energy.

However, if there is one overriding lesson to be learned from the climate crisis, it is that we cannot produce things of value to society without also paying attention to the waste products we create in the process. Ironically, carbon dioxide itself is one of the least toxic of the many waste products created by modern industry. The most toxic of them all is the high-level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants.

The nuclear waste problem

While nuclear power does not directly emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it does produce a wide array of highly radioactive waste products.

Governments and industry still have not solved the problem of how to protect future generations from this extremely dangerous waste that can remain harmful for tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years – much longer than the whole of recorded human history.

The US decided in 1987 to store its most high-level radioactive waste (HLRW) in tunnels 1,000 feet below Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but as of 2023, some 36 years and $15 billion later, the project has been defunded by Congress and major technical and environmental justice obstacles remain as to whether this southwestern desert site will ever be licensed for long-term storage of commercial nuclear waste. There is currently no agreed timetable for resolving this problem.

Other countries are exploring and actively developing similar sites for permanent storage, but as of 2023, none of the more than 400,000 metric tons of HLRW already produced by the world’s nuclear power plants have yet to be transferred into long-term safe storage. Finland is the farthest along in the construction of its long term deep geological burial site of its commercial HLRW on an island in the southwest of the country.[3] Whether this site can withstand the unprecedented biological isolation required for tens of thousands of years only the distant future will tell.

The time problem

Perhaps at some point in the future, a safe way will be found to store and/or use up the thousands of tons of highly radioactive waste already produced by nuclear power plants around the world.[4]

But even if permanent waste storage (and Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, the potential weaponization of Zaporizhzhia, etc.) weren’t worrisome enough, we just don’t have time for nuclear power at the scale needed to avert climate catastrophe.[5] 

It takes many years to develop new nuclear power technologies and many more years to actually build the nuclear power plants. For example, the Vogtle Unit 3 nuclear reactor in Georgia started generating electricity in July 2023. But Westinghouse designed it in the 1990s, submitted the design to the NRC in 2002, got it approved in 2005, applied for the initial construction permit in 2006, started signing contracts in 2008, received the construction permit in 2009, and finally began construction in 2013, with a scheduled completion date of 2016 and an estimated cost of $14 billion. By 2017 the plant was hopelessly behind schedule and over budget. Westinghouse went bankrupt as a result of losses on two other nuclear power plants under construction in South Carolina, which were subsequently cancelled.[6]

In 2019, the new scheduled completion date for the Vogtle reactor was set for 2021 at a revised cost of $25 billion. When it finally entered into service in July 2023, the total cost looked like being closer to $34 billion[7]— seven years late, and over 20 years from the initial design to producing electricity.

Apart from the Vogtle reactors, there were 12 other new US nuclear power plants with combined construction and operating project permits already approved by the NRC. All 12 have been cancelled, suspended or abandoned mid-construction,[8] which means that any new nuclear power plant construction in the US at this point will have to start with the lengthy process of getting design and license approvals before construction can even begin.

Meanwhile we have less than 10 years to end the world’s dependence on fossil fuels.

Uranium is not renewable

Although some proponents of nuclear power try to describe it as a “renewable” form of energy, it is not. It is possible to run nuclear reactors on thorium and other mixed fuels, but all nuclear power plants currently generating electricity across the world rely on uranium as a fuel. Uranium is a finite resource with “known” reserves of approximately 6 million tons worldwide.[9] At the current rate of global uranium fuel consumption (around 65,000 tons per year) these reserves could keep the nuclear power industry going for around 100 years. Of course, these reserves would run out much faster if more nuclear power plants are built in the meantime.

Uranium is also not mined in its pure form. Uranium is mined from ores that range enormously in their levels of uranium concentration. Some uranium mines in Canada recover ores containing as much as 20% uranium, while ores in Namibia, for example, average only 0.01% uranium.[10] The industrial average for mined uranium concentration levels has been between 0.05% – 0.15%, but the more uranium that gets mined, the lower the average remaining concentration becomes.[11]

According to at least one study, uranium reserves by the 2050s could have average concentrations as low as 0.013%.[12] At this concentration, the amount of energy required to make the uranium sufficiently concentrated to use as nuclear fuel is potentially greater than the amount of energy that the fuel would produce in a nuclear reactor. This is known as the “energy cliff.” The energy cliff describes the point at which the amount of energy required to enrich the uranium ore for use in a nuclear power plant exceeds the amount of energy that will ever be produced from that enriched uranium.

Figure 4.1 Energy required vs. energy produced by nuclear power[13]

There are different views as to exactly where the threshold grade of uranium ore may lie before it hits the energy cliff, but there is no disagreement that at some point, this threshold will be reached. [14]

Mining uranium for use in nuclear power plants is hugely energy intensive in itself. The Olympic Dam mine, for example, which is the largest uranium mine in Australia, is also the single largest consumer of electricity in Australia.[15] And that’s before the enrichment of the uranium to the grade necessary for use as nuclear fuel, which is the most energy-intensive part of the process. To produce enough nuclear fuel for a 1GW nuclear reactor for one year currently requires about 10 GWh of electricity.[16]

Small Modular Reactors

Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are nuclear-fission reactors with up to a third of the capacity of traditional nuclear-fission reactors.[17] (So they’re not that small.) The idea is that the smaller size and modular construction will enable more reactors to be built in more places more quickly.[18]

There are many different designs that come under the rubric of SMR. Some rely on passive safety systems in which human intervention or external power or force is not required to shut down the reactor, thus supposedly making them safer.[19]

Most of the new SMR designs are estimated to be commercially viable only after 2030. Globally, there are only three SMRs currently in operation, with seventy-seven others still in the design or development stage.[20] 

In addition to the time factor, the waste factor is also problematic. In an analysis of three different SMR designs, it was shown that energy-equivalent volumes of waste could actually be up to 35 times that of a classic pressurized water reactor.[21] Existing “fast breeder” reactors in Europe, which burn up some of the waste products of conventional reactors, have actually turned out to produce even more radioactive waste than the conventional reactors.[22]

One type of new SMR reactor relies on thorium as the nuclear fuel.[23] Thorium is more readily available than uranium, and it is more efficient as a fuel. It is being sold as “cleaner, more cost effective” and “safer” than uranium reactors, but the jury is still out.[24] Thorium reactors were developed in the 1960s and then abandoned in favor of uranium ones, mainly on cost grounds. There are other technical reasons why thorium reactors may not be the bright future of nuclear power, not least because although thorium itself is more plentiful than uranium, it actually takes an isotope of uranium (U233) to get the thorium to work, and generating that particular isotope of uranium is at present cost-prohibitive.[25]

Nuclear Fusion

In December 2022, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced an “historic” breakthrough in nuclear fusion, with the first successful “ignition” yielding a net surplus of energy.[26] By beaming 192 lasers at a frozen pellet of hydrogen, researchers were able to fuse hydrogen atoms into helium and create a controlled amount of energy for the first time. A great deal was made of the fact that the lasers delivered 2.05 MJ of energy and the pellet yielded 3.15 MJ of energy – a surplus! But according to Nature magazine, the lasers themselves consumed 322 MJ of energy in the process, dwarfing by a hundredfold the “surplus” energy created by the experiment.[27]

It may well be that unlimited electricity from fusion energy is “just around the corner,” as some have been claiming for decades.[28] But in this particular case, what the Lawrence Livermore Lab was working on was not the generation of electricity at all, but the ability to simulate a nuclear weapon explosion without having to actually explode a bomb. This is in pursuit of the lab’s primary mission of ensuring that US nuclear weapons continue to “work” as intended – the so-called “stockpile stewardship” program.[29]

Another nail in the nuclear coffin – cost

Nuclear power is already the most expensive form of electricity generation and vastly more expensive than the latest costs for wind and solar.[30]

The only reason nuclear power has remained a viable option for many decades is because it has been heavily subsidized by the government. This was originally because nuclear power plants created, as a waste product, the plutonium needed for nuclear weapons.

Just like the “hidden” energy cost of producing the fusion breakthrough above, many of the costs for producing the nuclear fuel for commercial power plants have been kept hidden from view because they were considered nuclear weapons expenses.[31]

Table 4.1 Levelized Cost of Electricity[32]

Through the Price-Anderson Act of 1957 (PL 85-256, 1957), the government limits the liability of nuclear plant operators in the event of a major accident and undertakes to use taxpayer money to cover any shortfall.[33] This has enabled nuclear plant operators to pay for insurance premiums which would otherwise be prohibitively expensive.[34] The 2011 Fukushima accident, for example, is now expected to cost as much as $180 billion just for the clean-up operation.[35]

On top of this, more than two million people have sued TEPCO, the owners of the Fukushima plant, for destruction of their property, loss of jobs, health costs, forced evacuation and many other effects of the disaster, including “mental anguish.” As of 2014, TEPCO had paid out over $50 billion in compensation claims, and by 2018 they had paid out $76 billion, with more claims still coming in.[36]

Even if the risk of a similar accident and subsequent damages on this scale in the US were considered vanishingly low (which, of course, they are not), the insurance for nuclear power plants would need to be astronomically high to enable insurance companies to cover themselves for that possibility.

But potentially the biggest cost associated with nuclear power is the cost of eventual long-term disposal of the waste. This is currently expected to cost US taxpayers nearly $500 billion over the next 50 years, including civilian and military waste. [37]

Even without factoring in all these subsidized costs of nuclear power, the construction and maintenance costs continue to rise, putting the comparative levelized cost of electricity generated by nuclear power now higher than coal, gas, wind or solar powered electricity. For this reason alone, nuclear power is unlikely to be the electricity source of choice for any utility company in the near future.

The last three remaining nuclear power plants in Germany were finally shut down on April 15, 2023, according to a long-agreed timetable. That still leaves over 400 nuclear plants still operating worldwide, with another 60 under construction and many more being planned in 38 countries.[38] In France, 68% of the country’s electricity still comes from nuclear power.[39] But rather than continuing to promote and subsidize nuclear power, the world should cut its losses and accept that nuclear power is simply not the answer to the climate crisis.

[1] Nuclear power is one of the climate “solutions” in Project Drawdown, for instance: Frischmann, C., et al. (2020, February 6). Nuclear Power @ProjectDrawdown #ClimateSolutions. Project Drawdown.

[2] Of course, after the total life cycle emissions from uranium extraction, enrichment, fuel fabrication, plant construction, decommissioning and nuclear waste management are tallied up, nuclear power actually has a sizeable greenhouse gas footprint on the range of 78 to 178 grams of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt hour of electricity. See Jacobson, Mark (2023), No Miracles Needed: How Today’s Technology Can Save Our Climate and Clean Our Air, Chapter 8.5, “Why Not Nuclear Power,” p. 165

[3] “Finland’s plan to bury spent nuclear fuel for 100,000 years,” BBC,  June 13, 2023,

[4] Phillips, L. (2019, February 27). The new, safer nuclear reactors that might help stop climate change. MIT Technology Review.

[5] Some scientists insist that we are already in climate “catastrophe” with the surpassing of numerous planetary boundaries/tipping points. Others claim we, in fact, cannot “solve” the climate emergency because it is a ‘predicament’ not a ‘problem’. Predicaments might be managed, mitigated or adapted to but cannot be fundamentally solved. Here we refer to climate “catastrophe” as the point at which human life as we know it is no longer possible. That is a point not yet reached and we would argue can still be averted.

[6] Wikipedia contributors. (2023, August 3). Virgil C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.

[7] Amy, J. (2022, May 8). Georgia nuclear plant’s cost now forecast to top $30 billion. AP News; The Associated Press.

[8] See United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission. (2023, July 31). Combined License Holders for New Reactors. U.S. NRC.,  Clarion Energy Content Directors. (2017, September 7). Dominion Energy Suspends North Anna Nuclear Expansion. Power Engineering.,  Cavros, G. (2018, July 12). Turkey Point Reactors: Negligence, Litigation, and a “Pause.”; Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.,  Nuclear Street. (2017, August 25). Duke Seeks To Cancel William States Lee Nuclear Power Project. Nuclear Street News., and Henry, T. (2018, February 28). Anti-nuclear group seeks to halt Fermi 3 plant. The Blade; Toledo Blade.

[9] World Nuclear Association. (2023, August). Uranium Supplies: Supply of Uranium. World Nuclear Association.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Wallner, A., Wenisch, A. (2011). Energy Balance of Nuclear Power Generation. Austrian Climate and Energy Fund.

[12] See Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen, Uranium Mining and Milling, 2019: Van Leeuwen, J. W. S. (2019). Uranium mining + milling. In Nuclear Legacy and the Second Law (No. m26U-m+m20190826).

and Van Leeuwen, J. W. S. (2019). Secure energy: options for a safer world. In ETH Zurich. Oxford Research Group.

[13] The graph above shows that when the concentration of uranium in the ore that is mined is less than about 0.01% (depending on whether the ore is categorized as soft or hard) the energy required to refine it exceeds the total energy gained from using it in a nuclear power plant. As described in the text, ore grades are currently close to 0.1% and will continue to get progressively worse as time goes on and the most rich mines are depleted. Based on figures and charts in Van Leeuwen, J. W. S. (2019). Uranium mining + milling. In (No. m26U-m+m20190826). (p. 14).

[14] See Wallner, A., Wenisch, A. (2011). Energy Balance of Nuclear Power Generation. Austrian Climate and Energy Fund. Pg.5.

[15] Wikipedia contributors. (2019, June 8). Olympic Dam mine. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.

[16] The units used for enrichment of uranium are called SWUs, and it takes approximately 100,000 SWUs to enrich enough uranium for a 1 GW reactor for one year. The gas centrifuge process uses 100 kWh of electricity for each SWU, which adds up to 10GWh for 100,000 SWUs. A 1 GW reactor operating 24 hours a day for 365 days a year would produce 8,760 GWh per year. Refueling, maintenance and unscheduled shut-downs put the average capacity for nuclear power plants at 90%, so a typical 1 GW reactor will produce around 7, 880 GWh per year.

Pike, J. (2019). Gas Centrifuge Uranium Enrichment. Global Security.

[17] Gordon, O. (2022, September 20). Small modular reactors: What is taking so long? Energy Monitor; Verdict Media Limited.

[18] International Atomic Energy Agency. (2016, April 13) Small modular reactors (SMR). IAEA.

[19] International Atomic Energy Agency. (2016, April 13) Small modular reactors (SMR). IAEA.

[20] Gordon, O. (2022, September 20). Small modular reactors: What is taking so long? Energy Monitor; Verdict Media.

[21] Krall, L. M., Macfarlane, A. M., & Ewing, R. C. (2022). Nuclear waste from small modular reactors. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119(23).

[22] Union of Concerned Scientists. (2011, March 21). Reprocessing & Nuclear Waste.

[23] Conca, J. (2021, July 21). New Nuclear Fuel Can Be Here Even Faster Than New Reactors. Forbes.

[24] Clean Core Thorium Energy. Clean Core and Canadian Nuclear Laboratories Sign Strategic Partnership on Advanced Nuclear Fuel Development. (2023, April 12).

[25] See Nelson, A. T. (2012). Thorium: Not a near-term commercial nuclear fuel. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists68(5), 33–44.

[26] Bishop, B. (2022, December 14). Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory achieves fusion ignition. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; U.S. Department of Energy.

[27] Tollefson, J. & Gibney, E. (2022). Nuclear-fusion lab achieves ‘ignition’: what does it mean? Nature612(7941), 597–598.

[28] Keating, D. (2023, April 24). Nuclear fusion “could be plugged into the grid in ten years.” Energy Monitor; Verdict Media Limited.

[29] Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Our Mission | Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. (n.d.). U.S. Department of Energy.

[30] Lazard. (2023). Lazard’s Leveled Cost of Energy Analysis – Version 16.0.

[31] For instance, the research and development for commercial reactor designs was originally paid for by the Navy for use in submarines and aircraft carriers. Uranium enrichment at Oak Ridge, Tennessee was paid for by the Atomic Energy Commission, and many other related expenses for nuclear weapons development was of direct benefit to the nuclear power industry. See Atomic Audit and Taxpayers for Common Sense. (2009, August 5). Nuclear Industry Subsidies.

[32] Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) is an industry standard for measuring the total cost of electricity produced by different sources, taking into account the life cycle of the source involved, including the costs of building a power plant, mining, drilling, refining the fuel supply, and all other costs. Data from Lazard. (2023). Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis – Version 16.0.

[33] Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information. (2005, November). The Price-Anderson Act. American Nuclear Society.

[34] Sokolski, H. (2010, August 1). The High and Hidden Costs of Nuclear Power. Hoover Institution; Board of Trustees of Leland Stanford Junior University.

[35] BBC. (2016, November 28). Japan Fukushima nuclear plant “clean-up costs double.” BBC News.

[36] Bruno, B. (2018, November 14). Attorneys Implore Judge to Keep Sailors’ Fukushima Case in U.S.Courthouse News Service.

[37] Strickler, L. (2019, January 29). “Cost to Taxpayers to Clean up Nuke Waste Jumps $100 Billion in a Year.” NBC News.

[38] See a complete list of operational and planned reactors here: Wikipedia contributors. (2023, September 17). List of commercial nuclear reactors. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.

[39] U.S. Energy Information Administration. (2023, January 23). Nuclear power plants generated 68% of France’s electricity in 2021. EIA.

Rainbow Hydrogen

Some parts of the world, including China, Europe, and California are focusing on hydrogen as a promising fuel alternative. If hydrogen fuel cell (FCEV) cars produce zero emissions, wouldn’t that be an easy solution to all our problems? Unfortunately, 99% of the hydrogen produced so far requires a lot of…you guessed it, fossil fuels.

Hydrogen is not so much a source of energy as a carrier of energy. As a liquid or a gas, it can be transported like fossil fuels and poured into the gas tank of a car just like gasoline. But first you have to make the hydrogen. You can’t just pump it out of the ground. And making hydrogen requires energy.

There are several different ways to produce hydrogen fuel, categorized by color.

Table 4.2 Hydrogen Colors

See section on fuel cell vehicles in Chapter 5 for a discussion on the potential and real viability of green hydrogen as a climate solution. Here we will focus on the most common sources of hydrogen: grey and blue.

Grey hydrogen is produced by coal gasification or by steam methane reforming (SMR). As the cheapest and most widely commercialized method of hydrogen production,[1] SMR accounts for nearly 99% of current hydrogen production. The process results in high carbon emissions.[2]

Blue hydrogen uses the same processes but with the added use of carbon capture technology to reduce emissions. There are as yet no set minimums on how much carbon needs to be captured to move it from grey to blue.[3] Blue hydrogen has been claimed to halve the emissions of grey hydrogen,[4] but a recent analysis shows that carbon capture only minutely lowers carbon emissions, and these are offset by higher methane emissions.[5]

There is also no plan as yet for the long-term storage of the captured carbon used to create blue hydrogen, and no guaranteed way to prevent future leakage back into the atmosphere (see above).

[1]IEA. (2019). The Future of Hydrogen: Seizing Today’s Opportunities. International Energy Agency.

[2] Howarth, R. W., & Jacobson, M. Z. (2021). How green is blue hydrogen? Energy Science & Engineering, 9(10), 1676–1687.

[3] Ajanovic, A., Sayer, M., & Haas, R. (2022). The economics and the environmental benignity of different colors of hydrogen. International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, 47(57), 24136–24154.

[4] Bartlett, J., & Krupnick, A. (2020). Decarbonized Hydrogen in the US Power and Industrial Sectors: Identifying and Incentivizing Opportunities to Lower Emissions.

[5] Howarth, R. W., & Jacobson, M. Z. (2021). How green is blue hydrogen? Energy Science & Engineering, 9(10), 1676–1687.

One trillion trees

Tree-planting suddenly became very popular as a climate mitigation strategy under the Trump presidency as one of the “biggest and cheapest ways” of removing CO2 from our atmosphere.[1] Trump was right – kind of. Well-planned tree-planting is indeed an important part of the solution – but only in combination with reducing carbon emissions. And it doesn’t help right away.

The well-intentioned “One Trillion Trees Project” endorsed by Trump grew out of a study claiming that a trillion trees could sequester up to 205 GtCO2-eq, or almost four times the total carbon emissions of the world today.[2] Clearly, if that were the case, there would be no need to cut back on burning fossil fuels or undertaking any other climate mitigation measures. So that figure is a convenient untruth for the fossil fuel industry (which was also praised by Trump in the same speech as when he endorsed the OTTP).

The problem is that trees take time to grow to maturity, and young saplings do not sequester the amounts of carbon that grown trees can. It can take up to 100 years or more for a forest to mature, so while planting trees is not a solution in the short term, it must be started sooner rather than later even to be a solution in the longer term.

Tree planting must also be planned and carefully executed to ensure that the outcome protects indigenous wildlife and truly leads to a carbon sink. One study found that planting the wrong kinds of trees in the wrong kinds of places could actually increase global warming rather than the reverse.[3]

And of course, it takes time and money to plant a trillion trees – a lot of time and money. During the course of the original New Deal in the 1930s, it took 3 million people in the Civilian Conservation Corps about 10 years to plant 3 billion trees.[4] A trillion is 333 times 3 billion, so for 3 million people to plant a trillion trees could take as long as 3,333 years by that reckoning. Alternatively, it could be done in 10 years by employing 1 billion people instead of just 3 million. But that’s an awful lot of people. No doubt there are cheaper, faster and more efficient ways to plant that many trees, but it is not a realistic option any time soon.

[1] Carrington, D. (2019, July 4). Tree planting “has mind-blowing potential” to tackle climate crisis. The Guardian.

[2] Bastin, Jean-Francois, et al. “The Global Tree Restoration Potential.” Science, vol. 365, no. 6448, 2019, 76–79,

[3] The study also found that planting trees on 448 million hectares of the Sahel in Africa could yield a net benefit of 9.7 Gt CO2-eq carbon sequestration while planting on 251 million hectares in a more favourable location could have a net benefit of 17.7 Gt CO2-eq. See Rohatyn, S., et al. (2022). Limited climate change mitigation potential through forestation of the vast dryland regions. Science377(6613), 1438.

[4] See Roos, Dave (2020) “6 Projects the Civilian Conservation Corps Accomplished,” History Channel.

–> Inflation Reduction Act

[1] Plug-in hybrids (PHEV) run at least partially on electricity, but non-plug-in hybrids like the very popular Toyota Prius are powered by gasoline. A comparatively small amount of electricity is generated when braking during normal driving conditions (10-15%), although an extended downhill trip can generate a more significant charge.

[2] Virtually all the emissions in Table 3.6 apart from those from in the agriculture sector are from the burning of fossil fuels. The emphasis on “individual personal responsibility” in addressing/solving the climate emergency has been a deliberate and concerted effort on the part of bad faith corporate and fossil fuel actors to divert attention from their own responsibilities. See, for example, Roxburgh, C (2022), Individuals are not to blame for the climate crisis, in YES! Magazine: