Energy and carbon: keeping the natural balance

Of all the countries on earth, France is the only one with the foresight, confidence, and discipline to have recognized and then immediately implemented the right energy strategy during the existential economic upset that resulted from the 1973 oil crisis. Like every other modern country, France realized instantly, when Saudi Arabia began dramatically raising the price of oil as part of its policy of using oil as a political weapon against the United States, the risks inherent in depending so heavily on petroleum from the Middle East.

Flamanville nuclear power plant, Normandy. These are two of the 58 power reactors France built as a result of a radical rethink of its energy policy following the 1973 oil crisis. Today France gets more than 75 percent of its electricity from reactors like these, and has the cleanest electricity and electrified rail systems in Europe.

But unlike every modern country, France was admirably prescient in understanding that the only viable alternative was nuclear energy. Action followed hard upon that understanding. France was prompt and decisive in both nuclearizing its electricity sector and electrifying its transportation sector.

France’s fast and massive transition to nuclear energy was triggered by the 1973 oil crisis and concern over national energy security. But the move has had huge positive environmental results as well. France has twice Canada’s population, but emits only three-quarters of Canada’s CO2. But a better comparison is with its fellow European states. France has the lowest per capita carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of the major countries in Europe.

And the best comparison of all is with Germany, which activists claiming to represent the environment tout as the promised land when it comes to allegedly green energy. In that comparison, France is clearly superior. The data in the Guardian link above are from 2009, two years before Germany panicked and caved to facile “green” scaremongering over the harmless Fukushima meltdown and announced the phaseout of its zero-carbon nuclear fleet. France’s annual per capita CO2 emissions were then 6.3 tons—a full three tons lower than Germany’s. They are even lower now, and Germany, after decades of hectoring the rest of the world on the urgent necessity of cutting CO2 emissions, has quietly abandoned all hope of ever catching up.

It’s not like the French are anti-CO2. They just understand and respect the global ecosystem, and leave CO2 production to natural processes, as much as possible. The country is known for its superb cuisine, the basis of which is bread and wine. The processes that manufacture both of these indispensable products ingeniously exploit the natural phenomenon of fermentation, a chemical process in which the yeast fungus species Saccaromyces cerevisiae turn sugars and carbohydrates into ethanol (alcohol) and CO2. That’s where the alcohol in wine comes from. Next time you’re extolling your beloved over a fine glass of red, drink a toast to these single-celled fungi—they created the mood. These fungi also produce the CO2 that leavens bread dough; this, in combination with gluten, time, and expertise, is what gives French bread its incomparable structure, elasticity, crumb, and flavour.

Well, not quite incomparable. One of my brothers runs a bakery in Toronto’s east end. I’d say French bread compares favourably with his. His breads are leavened mostly with natural yeast, i.e. sourdough. But he also does commercial-yeasted breads like baguettes. The baguettes you get in France are almost as good. His raisin bread is also out of this world, as this writeup says (photo 7/10).

The use of natural carbon cycling processes for wine and breadmaking are ancient arts that honour mother nature and human ingenuity. The French after 1973 saw the right way forward and made smart national-level energy decisions that have carried their ancient arts gracefully and seamlessly into the modern age, allowing them to flourish alongside the latest technological innovations. One of those arts has established a formidable foothold in east Toronto, in a jurisdiction that is also mostly nuclear powered (see Tables 1 and 2 in the left-hand sidebar).

Hemlock Varnish Shelf (Ganoderma tsugae). This fungus takes the first opportunity to get its business done: I took the photo in Muskoka Ontario on April 23, two days after it had gone down to minus 10 at the end of a long and cold winter. Ganoderma tsugae eats dead wood, mostly hemlock, and turns the carbonaceous component of wood into carbon dioxide (CO2). Fungi all over the world put around 80 billion tons of CO2 into the air every year, and are the most important component of the natural carbon cycle.

Unlike France, however, Ontario has sometimes swung into facile groupthink and adopted silly policies such as deliberately discouraging electricity use. With so much of our electricity coming from the most efficient zero-carbon source in the world, and with our nuclear expertise, we Ontarians should electrify as much of our activity as possible. Let fungi and not power plants put CO2 into the air: that is how the earth designed it.

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10 years ago

It is interesting to note that France built 13 GW nuclear power plants within only two years of what was called “The Messmer plan.”, EdF’s vision had been of an “all-electric,
all-nuclear society”, and after the oli crisis of 1973 they enforced nuclear power as a purely administrative decision without parliamentary debate. So starting in 1974 they built 56 reactors over the next 15 years.
By the mid-1980s France had a huge overcapacity of nuclear power, whose construction required EdF to borrow heavily from international capital markets and leading to an annual loss of 4 bn FFr in 1989 and a long-term debt of 226 bn FFr. Around the same time, EdF expanded its electricity exports to most European neighbors, including the UK. After 1990 they soon added East Germany and Bulgaria. But it si important to recognize their experiment worked out well in the long run and has important lessons from which we can learn.