IPCC, meet Johannes Kepler: like you, he faced dogma, peer pressure, and criticism. Here’s how he responded

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) earlier this week published the contribution of another Working Group to its Assessment Report 5. This WG, WG3 to be precise, reviewed literature on the “scientific, technological, environmental, economic and social aspects of mitigation of climate change.” While it professes to offer no recommendation on exactly how mankind should go about mitigating climate change, it is clear that WG3 feels that anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions must be cut, and cut radically. The best target is a CO2 atmospheric concentration level of 450 parts per million, and to reach that target WG3 says this:

At the global level, scenarios reaching 450 ppm CO2eq are also characterized by more rapid improvements of energy efficiency, a tripling to nearly a quadrupling of the share of zero- and low-carbon energy supply from renewables, nuclear energy and fossil energy with carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS), or ioenergy with CCS (BECCS) by the year 2050.

Germany has already embarked on an ambitious program to increase its energy supply from renewables, and has quite aggressively eschewed nuclear. Did that move the world toward 450 ppm atmospheric concentration of CO2? No. The result of Germany’s aggressive expansion of renewables and abandonment of nuclear has been that Germany’s CO2 from electric power generation—which, let’s be clear, is the very energy supply to which the IPCC WG3 refers—have gone up.

Yes, you read that right—up. The chart is from the December 2013 link in the International Energy Agency’s Monthly Electricity Statistics web page. As you can see, combustible fuel output in Germany went up in each year since 2011 when the nuclear phaseout began. As you can see, renewable output increased slightly too. But it did not prevent the increased use of combustible fuels.

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Click to enlarge

This is public information, and moreover it has been public for a while. It was also predictable, when Germany announced its nuclear phaseout in 2011. This is because of something I call the Iron Rule of Power Generation. The Iron Rule goes like this:

When one form of steady, large-scale, reliable generation comes out of the system, another with the same attributes must go in to replace it.

This means that if you take nuclear generation off a grid, you have to replace it with another form of generation that can, like nuclear, produce steady reliable power hour after hour, day after day, and week after week. Germany said it would replace nuclear with wind and solar. The IEA chart above shows what really replaced nuclear: combustible fuels. Mostly coal, some natural gas.

Well, coal and gas are fossil fuels. When you burn them they produce CO2. If you replace a 1,000 megawatt nuclear generator with coal or gas, you will dump at least 5.5 million tons of CO2 into the air over a year. Nuclear is zero-CO2 generation. So replacing it with a fossil source will increase the atmospheric concentration of CO2. That is not what the IPCC wants us to do.

The Iron Rule of Power Generation is not magic, and it’s not rocket science. It is just common sense. Modern societies depend totally on electricity. You can talk all you want about running a grid off wind turbines and solar panels. Common sense says you simply cannot do that. Wind does not blow all the time, and the sun sets at night. To power a modern society, you need a large scale reliable power source.

The IPCC is a science organization. They have been haranguing mankind for decades about reducing man-made emissions of CO2. So why, with Germany’s embarrassing record of increasing the atmospheric concentration of CO2 staring them in the face, would they say that renewables can help reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations?

As a science body, the IPCC should take Johannes Kepler’s example. Kepler, who lived from 1571 to 1630—one of the most paradoxical periods of European history—cherished the Platonic ideal that planetary orbits around the sun should be perfect circles. He spent a quarter century trying to shoehorn some of the most meticulous observations and measurements of Mars’s orbit into that ideal. The problem was, Mars’s orbit would not fit into a circle. Kepler finally had to capitulate to the observations and measurements—i.e., to his own capacity to see and reason—and go where the data told him to go. Planetary orbits are elliptical, not circular. The website Kepler’s Discovery is an excellent and detailed resource on this.

The IPCC should do the same with its recommendations on how to reduce the atmospheric concentrations of CO2. It should rethink its preference for renewables in light of the German experience.

And that rethink should start with the IPCC’s prejudice against nuclear. Though WG3 included nuclear in its list of “zero- or low-carbon energy supply,” quoted above, it makes clear on page 23 of the same report what it really thinks of nuclear:

Nuclear energy is a mature low-GHG emission source of baseload power, but its share of global electricity generation has been declining (since 1993). Nuclear energy could make an increasing contribution to low-carbon energy supply, but a variety of barriers and risks exist (robust evidence, high agreement). Those include: operational risks, and the associated concerns, uranium mining risks, financial and regulatory risks, unresolved waste management issues, nuclear weapon proliferation concerns, and adverse public opinion (robust evidence, high agreement). New fuel cycles and reactor technologies addressing some of these issues are being investigated and progress in research and development has been made concerning safety and waste disposal.

The alleged risks sound like they came from an anti-nuclear activist. Operational risks? What operation risks are the scientists at the IPCC referring to? Nuclear is the safest technology for large scale power generation. For a technology to qualify as risky, there should be a trail of dead bodies to point to. The only major fatal accident related to nuclear energy was Chernobyl. That was in 1986. Fifty six people died.

Compare that with the literally tens of thousands of people who died when the Banqiao Dam in China failed.

Which technology is more dangerous? Clearly, the one that has killed more people.

Here’s a thought experiment for the IPCC. How many of them are more familiar with the word Fukushima than Banquiao? And why is that?

How is the IPCC defining risk? How scientific is that definition?

Next door to Germany, France has been since the 1970s an example of how to decarbonize an electric power system. French electricity is five times cleaner than German, according to the IEA (see my article on this, where I give the sources). It costs half as much, at the household level. This is because France has since the 1970s made most of its electricity in nuclear reactors.

Where in the half-century French experience with nuclear energy have any of the IPCC’s alleged risks of nuclear energy manifested themselves?

IPCC, please look hard at the German and French examples of electric power generation. You are scientists. Please listen to what the data are saying. I know there is a lot of noise and superstition and urban legends. But these, and the fact that others have succumbed to them, have no place in a discussion on science, do they. Kepler faced similar prejudice, and heard similar noise, and laboured under similar superstition and peer pressure. He took on a question of literally cosmic dimensions. That he did so during the grimmest period of religious warfare that Europe had seen, a time in which such questions were mortally perilous to ask let alone answer, speaks not only to his sheer courage but to the soundness of his faith in his own powers to correctly apprehend what the data were saying. In the end, he simply listened to his data and put his faith in his own reason. And we all benefited.

IPCC, do you have faith in your powers to apprehend what the data are saying?

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9 years ago

The IPCC’s consensus process really can’t yield any other result.  With dogmatically anti-nuclear countries like Germany and NZ exercising veto power over the language, everything has to be weasel-worded to avoid any offense to anyone.  Reality doesn’t even get a vote.

The technocrats and engineers know how to solve the climate problem.  They were given free rein in France after the oil-price shocks, and gave France an oil-free grid which was also nearly carbon-free as a bonus (“No oil, no gas, no coal, no choice”).  Either the public will have to boot the ideologues out of power, or the ideologues will have to be more frightened of climate damage than radiation.  THAT’s when things will move again, in a big way.

Either that, or when China starts rolling out MSRs in ten years and the West starts going “Wha?  Beijing stopped buying coal?!”  At the very least, Australia would immediately regret losing so much time getting its own program started while it had the export income to pay for it.

9 years ago

Excellent post and comment by Engineer-Poet.

9 years ago

Steve – you might be being a little hard on the IPCC scientists.

Please note that they wrote “a tripling to a nearly quadrupling of the share of zero- and low-carbon energy supply from renewables, nuclear energy AND fossil fuel energy WITH carbon capture and storage (CCS).” Those emphasized words are important. The AND operator is not an OR; it means that all of the items in the list are required and all should be tripled or quadrupled from current output.

Think about that carefully; is is very good news for nuclear, which currently produces about 2600 billion kilowatt-hours per year world-wide. Renewables do okay, but tripling or quadrupling of current fossil WITH CCS would still not be very much power.

The paragraph about risks is really about the perception of risk, which has certainly inhibited nuclear growth up until now. The paragraph is worded to answer the question any logic-driven policy maker would be sure to ask – “If nuclear is indeed a reliable, zero emission baseload power source, why is its market share shrinking?”

Remember, not all policy makers are as steeped in this topic as we are.

John T Tucker
9 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

I had noticed a few of these points in the report and it was troubling me. Wonderful argued post (and responses) here. Wish I would have seen it and them sooner.

9 years ago
Reply to  Rod Adams

“If nuclear is indeed a reliable, zero emission base load power source”

No “if” required. Nuclear *is* a reliable, (almost-)zero emission base load power source. Everyone agrees on that.

“why is its market share shrinking?”

Because it’s not the *only* reliable, (almost-)zero emission base load power source.

9 years ago

Steve, are not these the same IPCC technocrats who crafted the Kyoto agreement? It set guides for reducing CO2 emissions, but also said that reductions from substitution of fossil fuels with nuclear power don’t count!

9 years ago

IPCC didn’t craft Kyoto. UNFCCC did. (Separate UN initiatives.)

9 years ago

There’s another country now measuring their CIPK.

Somebody called Pete51 commented on Atomic Insights last night
April 19, 2014 at 6:29 PM
“France’s grid operator now has a website that shows the CO2 emissions per kilowatt-hour generated.


France emits around 40 grams of CO2 per kwh. Germany, the US, Japan, and most other industrialized nations emit between 400 and 500 grams/kwh.
We already know how to make a low carbon electricity system, but the Powers That Be still want to reinvent the wheel. With all of Germany’s investment into green energy, they are still expanding their coal/lignite generation capacity. What’s the real goal?”

9 years ago
Reply to  Rick Maltese

“but the Powers That Be still want to reinvent the wheel”

For a lower cost/Watt, obviously. Vogtle is going in at $7.25 a Watt. Levy County was tagged at $11/W. Darlington B was proposed at $8.25, but the whispers put it at about $9.50. The Nuclear Renaissance was based on $6 CAPEX (read the Moody’s report). That didn’t materialize, and neither did the plants. It’s that simple.

Meanwhile the average cost of large-scale PV in the US last year dropped to $1.96, and wind and gas were both less than that (I’ve seen quotes on wind turbines at just over $1, all-in). All of those scale from about 1 MW to 250 MW, giving planners considerable flexibility in terms of deployment and funding options. Even when you consider in CF, that’s still a lower LCoE.

9 years ago

I’m not sure what it was that influenced the editorial board of the New York Times to switch from their traditional anti-nuclear stance to now support nuclear but that is a major shift. Could it be they were convinced by the recent IPCC report?


Geoff Sleeman
9 years ago

It seems incredible that a very small concentration (.04% ) of the gas that is the bubbles in our beer or lemonade will lead to human extinction. Up to year 1950 planet earth could cope with its own and human greenhouse gas production. Since then human gas production and population have continued at an ever increasing rate. We are well past the point of no return, greenhouse gases are dissolved in rain water forming acids that kill trees and dissolve ocean coral and also form clouds that retain the sun’s heat. Ice caps melt and release huge quantities of gas. and the reflecting ice surfaces are replaced by heat absorbing surfaces causing permafrost ice melts. This releases billions of tons of gas which are having a disastrous effect on sea food and arable land harvests. Nations with excess population and nuclear arsenals will combine to ensure their food and comfortable living space, the rest will be enslaved or perish. To further follow the above read the free chapter on Extinction by Geoff Sleeman (Amazon).