SINGAPORE — If China and other Asian nations shy away from atomic power following Japan’s nuclear crisis, would it intensify the impact of climate change on the region?
The question is no longer hypothetical. Many governments have already announced reviews or delays of programs to use nuclear reactors to generate electricity. Whether warranted or not, each new report of radiation leakage from the stricken Fukushima plant in Japan is increasing public and political opposition to expansion of nuclear power.
One of the attractions of this technology is its ability to produce large amounts of electricity over long periods of time without emitting the huge quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning fossil fuels, especially coal for power and heavy industry, and oil for transport. CO2 is the main man-made global-warming gas.
Asia is at the epicenter of both nuclear power expansion and vulnerability to climate change. This is a key reason is why governments in the region, especially China, made commitments to invest in nuclear power.
The World Bank group and the Australian government’s Overseas Aid Program (AusAid) warned in a joint report last year that “sustaining economic growth without compromising the environment is the greatest energy challenge facing East Asia over the next two decades.” Its survey covered China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
Echoing an earlier study by the Asian Development Bank, it described the Asia-Pacific zone as among the world’s most vulnerable regions to climate change threats, including sea level rise.
Huge numbers of people live on low-lying coastal land and islands. They would be threatened by seawater inundation and displacement. There are 130 million in China alone and another 40 million in Vietnam, about half the total population.
Another major vulnerability listed by the World Bank and AusAid is food crop yields, which are projected to decline in Asian countries due to rising temperatures and more extreme weather.
East Asia’s turbo-charged economic growth has lifted millions out of poverty. It is the best hope of reviving growth in the United States and Europe. However, Asia’s dynamism has come at a heavy cost in terms of damage to the environment and quality of life. Choked by toxic emissions from coal and oil burning, East Asia has many of the world’s most polluted cities.
The region’s GDP, after adjustment for inflation, is up by nearly 400 percent since 1990. But in the same period, energy use has risen by 150 percent and harmful sulfur dioxide emissions by 150 percent.
East Asia’s CO2 emissions have more than tripled in the last 20 years — led by China, which relies heavily on coal for energy. China accounts for 80 percent of the region’s energy consumption and 85 percent of its carbon dioxide emissions.
If East Asia continues business as usual, its air pollution and CO2 emissions will double in next two decades.
“East Asia will contribute hugely to climate change and hurt its own citizens,” Andrew Steer, the World Bank’s special envoy for climate change wrote in a recent blog. “In the process, the region would severely compromise its energy security as almost all its major countries become highly dependent on imported energy.”
Yet the World Bank-AusAid report said that it was technically and economically feasible for East Asia to take a greener path, with local air pollution half that of the business as usual scenario by 2015 and CO2 emissions 40 percent less.
Under such a program, the CO2 emissions of China and the five Southeast Asian economies could peak in 2025 and decline slightly thereafter. Half the gain would come from improved energy efficiency. But power generation would also need to shift dramatically from coal to renewable energy (chiefly hydro, geothermal, wind, biomass and later solar power), nuclear energy and natural gas. The latter is the least carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels.
If East Asian governments put the right policies and incentives in place, the share of low-carbon technologies in meeting East Asia’s power demand would triple to around 50 percent, from just 17 percent now.
However to achieve this target, the World Bank-AusAid report said that nuclear power would need to contribute about 15 percent of the region’s power generation by 2030. Almost all of this nuclear energy expansion would come from China, “because of the government’s aggressive plans to boost nuclear power.”
Before the massive earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima plant, nuclear power was set to play a big role in China’s program to increase the share of nonfossil fuels to 15 percent of its overall energy mix, up from some 8 percent today. That is why the future energy choices of the world’s biggest coal burner and largest CO2 emitter are so important.
Beijing faces several critical decisions. After a safety review, it can continue its planned nuclear expansion, while accelerating plans to use more advanced and safer reactors and spent fuel storage systems. Or it can scale back nuclear power. The vital questions would then be: how much of China’s substitute electricity generation would come from carbon-intensive coal or less carbon- intensive gas, and how much from low- or zero-carbon renewable energy?
Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.