What is Happening?
The debate over nuclear energy and it’s role in meeting our aggressive clean energy targets is really starting to heat up in light of Biden laying out his goals and targets.
Biden wants the US to cut it’s carbon emissions in half by 2030 and become net-zero as a nation by 2050. Aggressive, but we like it! There are lots of challenges to getting there, but one of the bigger ones is electricity.
Today the US draws about 60% of it’s electricity from fossil fuels. Only 20% comes from renewables (solar, wind, hydro) and even most of the aggressive estimates that are pro-renewable think this could get to 40% by 2050. Only moving the needle slightly away from fossil fuels is not gonna get us to these targets. And let’s keep in mind the demand for electricity is only going up. Things like electric cars, Bitcoin, vertical farming, artificial intelligence and that data storage it requires – all of these things need more, not less, electricity than we use today.
Enter nuclear. It is far cleaner than fossil fuels in terms of greenhouse gases, in some cases as clean as some renewables. It requires far less land than say wind and solar. It is more stable and reliable too. So what’s the hesitation?
Why This is Happening
Well, nuclear has a checkered history and as many critics as supporters.
- Safety – we all know famous incidents like Chernobyl. It seems every time nuclear gets some momentum, an accident happens somewhere that stimies it. The latest was Fukashima in 2011, when a tsunami caused a meltdown that led to Japan shuttering many of its nuclear plants in the years that followed.
- Nuclear Waste – extremely hazardous with no great way to store or dispose of it.
- Costs – building plants are expensive. They almost always go over budget and take longer than planned. So many pundits say since this energy form requires so much investment and time, we are better off investing more in renewables and solving their scale and storage issues.
However, nuclear supporters say there are innovations happening to address these. There are companies such as NuScale and TerraPower building smaller, more modular reactors that are stored and cooled in ways that don’t risk massive meltdowns, and also can be throttled up and down more efficiently – a big challenge for renewables and advantage of fossil fuels for the volatility of electricity demand.
Innovations are happening on managing nuclear waste, such as recycling it and converting it back into energy, which you can read about here.
As for costs and timing, this remains a challenge and needs to be improved. A big problem is that for the past few decades, we’ve moved away from nuclear and refocused on fossil fuels while dabbling in renewables, leading to a gap in skilled labor that knows how to build these plants and reactors efficiently. It will take time to improve this but can only come from reinvesting back into it and building up that labor force again, while also moving to the smaller, modular reactors that can be produced in factories and offer economies of scale.
What’s the Impact?
The outcome here is big time.
You can not simply start investing in nuclear and quickly turn the other way, so we either need to embrace it as part of our energy mix or avoid it and really go all in on renewables.
There are solutions to make renewable sourced energy more reliable and shelf stable via industrial-grade batteries, a market that saw a 214% increase in 2040.
However, like the MIT study cited in the Nat Geo article below on this topic, we really believe the future of clean energy will need to be a mix of nuclear, renewable, and battery storage. The most important target needs to be moving us off fossil fuels – they are so destructive to the environment, to ecosystems, to pollution and health. If that is the key target, it seems almost impossible to get there in a 20-30 year window without nuclear.
Unless fusion – perhaps the cleanest most renewable energy of all but still more science fiction than reality – miraculously advances and can be scaled and controlled in the immediate future, we are gonna need nuclear to reach our targets. Oh and btw fusion is in many ways a more advanced, futuristic version of nuclear.
This Nat Geo article lays out the debate in detail and gives you plenty of links to read more on both sides of it!
AMAZON RAINFOREST DANCES WITH DANGEROUS TIPPING POINT
The Amazon is shrinking, particularly in Brazil. This has been going on for decades – the Brazlian Amazon (which is roughly 60% of the overall Amazon) has shrunk 19% since the 1970s – but it has really been accelerating since 2019 when President Bolsonaro took office. Just last year 9.5% of the Brazil Amazon was deforested, the highest total in 12 years.
Deforestation combined with degradation – where the forest is not totally cleared but it is thinned or damaged in other ways such as prolonged droughts – are leading to big time problems.
For one, the first time since the data was recorded, the Brazlian Amazon is now a net carbon emitter. Meaning from 2010 to 2019, the Amazon produced 16.6 billion tons of carbon while sequestering 13.9 billion. That means the Amazon is now a net-negative on the carbon front.
More concerning is how the Amazon is drying out, particularly in the Southern regions. You’ll see here in this piece from 2020 exactly what is happening. Models show that another 20%-25% of deforestation could get us to a tipping point where the Amazon cannot recover, and it will turn into a more savannah like ecosystem, severely reducing its ability to capture and store greenhouse gases, which would accelerate the climate crisis.
Why It’s Happening
Primarily for commercial reasons. Under President Bolsonaro, a populist, far-right leader, Brazil has been clearing more and more of the Amazon to make room for agriculture and livestock.
Now, there’s a reason for this. The Brazil economy has been reeling since their big recession from 2014-2016, and a big reason Bolsorano was elected in 2018 were his promises to fix it. In 2020 Brazil GDP contracted 4.1%, although the COVID pandemic played a big role. Still, Brazil needs jobs and needs growth, as many are living in poverty, so there is merit in needing to address this, the question is rooted in how.
Many believe that there are ways to commercialize the Amazon without causing so much damage, such as focusing on sustainable, native species like the Brazlian nut, acai, and guarana. However instead, the government has turned to things like sugar cane, palm oil, and livestock. Things that absolutely devastate ecosystems and are anything but sustainable. These are products that have more incumbent global demand, whereas the more native products require more global adoption to really build a big market for.
There is also evidence to suggest there are ways to get far more yield from the agricultural lands already cleared instead of clearing more. And to work in cooperation with Indigenous people on how to sustain a living while protecting the Amazon instead of seizing their home, deforesting it, putting them into intense, low paying agricultural jobs.
What’s the Impact?
Whether that point of no return is 20%, 30% or 40% of additional deforestation, all scientists globally agree we must not find out the hard way.The Amazon is so critical to our global fight against climate change, in addition to being home to millions of incredible Indigenous people and wildlife that should be respected and protected, that we can’t risk losing it for good to a prolonged period of drought and drying up.
Just as we are melting the polar ice caps and nearing a point of no return there, if not already there, we are doing the same to the Amazon. Let’s not put this all on Bolsonaro, we all have contributed to the climate issues causing droughts and changes to weather, and we all hold some responsibility to step in and help Brazil find solutions, not just point fingers and play armchair quarterback.
Bolsonaro has come out and said that with foreign aid to the tune of $20 billion per year – they could reduce deforestation by as much as 40% – which they would use for funding protection services and R&D on bio-industries that are more protective and sustainable. Sure some of this is propaganda, but that doesn’t mean the US and other wealth nations shouldn’t step up and work with Bolsonaro and invest funds where it’s needed.
In this week’s podcast episode, we talk about this and much more with Ana Ionova, a Brazilian environmental journalist who sat down with us and gave us the full lowdown of what is happening and how it can be addressed. Definitely take a listen!
In this episode we sit down with Ana Ionova – an environmental journalist in Brazil who has been covering the Amazon deforestation issue for years. She gives us a first hand account of what is happening right now in Brazil, and we talk about everything from President Bolsonaro to the impact on indigenous people and dissect everything going on.
GUEST OP-ED FROM SEA TURTLE, INC
TEXAS WINTER FREEZE & SEA TURTLES
by Dr. Amy Bonka, Sea Turtle Inc. Chief Conservation Officer
I awoke to the chime of my cell phone and squinted as I read the message on the screen: “Power is out at Sea Turtle, Inc.” It was 2:20 am on Monday, February 15, 2021 and it was about 40°F outside and dropping. In addition to our typical residents and clinic patients, we had just under 200 cold-stunned sea turtles in our facility. I had no way of knowing, but over the next 48 hours we’d still be without power and would take in over 4,000 more cold-stunned sea turtles. Yes, over 4,000 cold stunned sea turtles in 48 hours. In total, we ended up being without power for 78 hours, and over Valentine’s week in early February, Sea Turtle, Inc. staff and volunteers took in over 5,000 cold-stunned sea turtles.
Sea Turtle, Inc. is located on South Padre Island, a barrier island in south Texas near the U.S./Mexico border. The Laguna Madre stretches throughout this area and up through Corpus Christi, Texas. The waters of the Laguna Madre are relatively shallow and abundant with seagrasses. This makes them ideal foraging grounds for juvenile green sea turtles, and we have seen an increasing number of green sea turtles in the Laguna Madre area since the 1990s. We’ve seen this growth at Sea Turtle, Inc as well, with a general increase in the number of patients coming in for rehabilitation. For example, from 2000-2009 Sea Turtle, Inc. saw about 20 patients a year, whereas from 2010-2019 Sea Turtle, Inc. saw about 50 patients per year. Over 5,000 sea turtles came in during the February 2021 cold stun event, and the majority of these were green sea turtles, though we did receive a few loggerhead sea turtles. Green sea turtles are one of five species of sea turtles found throughout the Gulf of Mexico waters. Adult sea turtles undergo migrations between foraging and nesting grounds, whereas juveniles and sub-adults don’t typically undergo these migrations; many of them remain in their foraging environments throughout the year. This is often the case with juvenile green sea turtles in the lower Laguna Madre.
Sea turtles, like all reptiles, are ectotherms, meaning they cannot internally control their body temperature. Reptiles are dependent on external factors to control the temperature of their body, which is why pond turtles are often seen up on logs and basking in the sun. This is part of what makes a cold stunning event so detrimental to sea turtles. Cold-stunning occurs when water temperatures drop below about 10°C, and sea turtles in those waters are stunned. They’re unable to swim or move; they may even get to the point where they can’t lift their head to breathe, which means they can drown while still being fully conscious. Knowing this, we prepare for a cold stun event of some type every year. Staff and a team of specially trained volunteers patrol and respond during potential cold stunning events, and we prepared for the February cold stun event in a similar manner. In previous years, cold stun events were around 150 turtles, with the most significant event before this year consisting of about 900 turtles. During the February 2021 cold stun event we far surpassed this number in a single day – and this event went on for seven days. Though residents throughout the Rio Grande Valley were without power, water, or gas, they came out in masses to support our efforts to save as many sea turtles from the freezing waters as we could. If it weren’t for the community’s support – locally and nationally – we would not have been able to save as many turtles as we did.
Though there is always some loss in an event like this, we were able to release over 2200 turtles. To give this a little perspective, over the past 10 years, Sea Turtle, Inc. has rehabilitated and released 511 turtles. This means that this one cold stunning event could have completely wiped out all the conservation and rehabilitation work we’ve done over the past 10 years by four fold. This single event could have had disastrous consequences for the green sea turtle population in our area.
So, what effects did the cold stun event have on the green sea turtle population? Sea turtles have a long life span, and green sea turtles don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re about 25-35 years old. A few breeding-sized adults did cold stun, which was very surprising, as they are not typically expected in the area at that time. Almost all of the turtles that came in during this cold stun event were juveniles or sub-adults, meaning they weren’t yet part of the breeding population. The juveniles and sub-adults still have a long road ahead of them, so it’s tough to say at this time, but it’s something we are very interested in and will be monitoring and investigating for many years to come. The numbers and size ranges of the turtles that came in during this event has raised a lot of fascinating questions surrounding the ecology of the Lower Laguna Madre, the green sea turtle population in this area, the overlap in ecological use areas of different sea turtle species, etc. all of which Sea Turtle, Inc. is excited to be addressing as we move forward with various research projects.
The February 2021 cold stun was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime event. However, with global climate change we have seen significant weather events happening more and more often. This begs the question: Will we see this once-in-a-lifetime event happen again? Only time will tell, but as for us, Sea Turtle, Inc. will now be preparing for a large-scale event every winter.
MEAT HAS A POLLUTION PROBLEM
What is Happening?
A new study came out, that found on an annual basis agriculture is causing pollution that kills an estimated 17,900 people per year. And over 80% of these deaths are from meat, dairy, and eggs.
This caused quite a lot of stir from folks like the National Beef Association and the American Farm Bureau as you might expect. However the studies were peer-reviewed multiple times, and based data provided from the EPA & US Department of Agriculture.
Here are some more talking points from the study and comparisons:
- Pollution from Beef leads to 4,000 deaths per year
- Pollution from Corn, which has been modified so much to feed livestock and create fuel, leads to 3,700 deaths per year
- Pollution from organically grown vegetables leads to 100 deaths per year
The study says that if we just switched all the Beef & Pork consumption to Poultry, that shift alone would save 6,300 lives per year.
Why It’s Happening
The main culprit is a fine particulate matter known as PM 2.5
This is a very problematic pollutant that inflames the body. For a long time it was thought to only effect the lungs causing things like asthma and long term lung damage, but medical scientists have now found it also seeps into the heart, causing prolong inflammation that leads to things like heart attacks and blood clots. Not good.
So why do animal products, be it food or leather, cause so much PM 2.5?
It’s because these industries rely on a lot of soil fertilization, since their practices are not regenerative in nature, tilling, which releases soil particulars into the air by thinning it out so much, lots of burning diesel from tractors and machinery, animal waste that releases the PM 2.5 toxin, and in addition is a big driver of highly inorganic, cheap, modified feedstock like corn that is not sold to humans to eat, but rather to livestock and fuel manufactures.
This is why the meat industry is so damaging to the environment, and this is yet another data point proving this out.
What’s the Impact?
Well, if you don’t know that the meat and animal product industries are a problem, here is a red alert for you.
Yes, there are ways to raise livestock and harvest dairy in more sustainable ways, but they are not as scalable or cheap. So as long as the US population is feeding on cheap animal products, nothing is going to change.
Does it mean everyone must go plant-based? No. Does it mean everyone should try to shift some of their diet away from animal products? Absolutely. Every little bit counts in shifting demand and culture over time.
Ultimately, the meat industry needs to be taxed for the true and total costs which includes its environmental damage, and at the same time, we need to invest in alternatives and keep making those products better so people can afford them. This will take time. However this is the true, open, free market solution to the problem. Make the polluting industries pay their true costs, which will raise costs and shrink demand, while increasing demand for alternatives which will drive more product innovation and lower costs of those products over time.
Beef used to be very very expensive and not commonly eaten back in the early 19th and 18th centuries. Then Americans colonized the West and turned it into grazing land for livestock, increasing supply and lowering costs and making it the staple of an affordable American diet. We can do the same thing for plant-based, organic alternatives. It won’t happen overnight, but with individuals driving more demand for them, businesses benefiting from innovation, and government stepping in to tax and subsidize the right things, we can get there.