On the same day that Rolls Royce announced plans to build 16 new nuclear ‘mini’ power plants my attention was drawn to a new campaign organisation called War On Climate Change (WOCC). The intent of WOCC is clear from its title, and reading its manifesto I heartily agree that its aims are commendable, even if it is my personal view that this war, however desirable is now facing an enemy over which it stands little chance of victory—namely nature herself. My pessimism is borne aloft by a tidal wave of news, delivered almost on a daily basis that climate heating has already reached a tipping point beyond reversal, to which the delayed human response is both inadequate and self-deceiving. Targets (where they exist) still seem formulated as if getting to net zero carbon emissions only by 2050 is the magic solution, which in practical terms means that the available carbon budget will expire long before then, such is the non-appetite for an ordered and inclusive approach suggested by the Contraction and Convergence (C&C) framework.
As a contribution to tackling climate change, nuclear power is supported by many environmental luminaries, not least the likes of George Monbiot and James Lovelock, so it has credible support from certain wings of the green movement. The problem, whatever your view about nuclear power, is that it cannot in the short timescale left do very much to assist in the war against climate change. Can you imagine the processes required to approve 16 new mini nuclear power stations around the UK? Rolls Royce reckon it would all be simpler and much less complex than building a new standard sized nuclear power station (where the UK is heavily reliant on the French and Chinese). My view, even though I am anti-nuclear generally, is that existing plant should be maintained as long as safely possible, but that’s all.
The co-incidental thing about hearing about WOCC and Rolls Royce’s proposal is that a co-founder of WOCC is Tim Yeo, the former Conservative environment minister under John Major, and latterly chair of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee until he retired as an MP in 2015 He was also a past chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, on which I served. When it comes to climate change, I believe Tim ’gets it,’ but I am nervous that he is also the founder in 2014 of something called the New Nuclear Watch Institute which promotes new nuclear. The word ‘Watch’ in this body’s title seems a little curious. I have no doubt that Tim is sincere in his climate change commitment—he has supported C&C in the past—and this new body, WOCC is proposing some stuff that is even a shade radical.
So what’s the problem? The underlying problem is simply capitalism. There are views that there could be a green form of capitalism which doesn’t treat the planet’s resources as inexhaustible. Sadly, the nearest a developed country got to recognising the need to junk that idea met its end in the UK’s general election of 2019. Any significant threat to the capitalism we have will meet the same fate, and I challenge anyone to gainsay that assertion without performing a handstand whilst juggling ten plates at the same time.
In other words, we will remain ever hopeful that some enlightened form of capitalism will deliver the amazing new technology (like a vaccine) for us and save us all the effort of having to do anything else. It’s a dream.