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Mark Lynas: You Mustn’t Believe The Lies Of The Green Zealots. And I Should Know – I Was One

Our environment and energy problems are solvable — but can be tackled effectively only with pragmatism, rather than ideological wishful thinking. And the litmus test for that may well be the issue of nuclear power.

Finally the Government is seeing sense about nuclear power. Last week, Energy Secretary (and former nuclear sceptic) Chris Huhne made a spectacular U-turn and backed a new generation of nuclear power stations.

Far from being a ‘failed technology’ (as he once described it), he said Britain needs nuclear electricity generation to get ‘off the oil hook’ and now reforms will be introduced to encourage businesses to invest in it.

As an environmental campaigner who has also performed a radical about-face on the issue of nuclear power, I believe Huhne is absolutely right.

Atomic energy, while far from perfect, is an essential option to combat two looming problems: climate change, caused by man-made carbon emissions, and a growing ‘energy gap’ by which Britain generates far less electricity than it needs, sending fuel bills soaring.

Surprisingly, nuclear power may be more environmentally friendly than many types of renewable energy, such as wind and solar power. Wind turbines can kill birds and bats, while solar power, if employed on a grand scale, will take up a lot of land space.

Also, as much as Greens are enthusiastic about solar electricity, in cloudy countries such as ours it is extremely inefficient and expensive. Nuclear power, on the other hand, is one of the cheapest ways of producing electricity, and it is much safer than many environmentalists would have us believe.

The objection of environmentalists to nuclear power — fears about the dangers of nuclear waste and the cost of decommissioning it — are overblown, which explains why many people don’t like the Greens.

And I can’t blame them. Because while Greens may be right about climate change, they stick their heads in the sand when it comes to one of the strongest solutions we have to this crisis — nuclear power.

Chris Huhne says we need a nuclear renaissance just to keep the lights on, and he’s quite correct.

A report from the Government’s Climate Change Committee last week outlined aims to get 40 per cent of our electricity from nuclear by 2030, producing an equivalent proportion of energy from renewable sources, such as wind and solar power.

But for this to happen and for Britain to have any chance of meeting its ambitious carbon-reduction targets, Green groups need to stop scare- mongering about atomic power and blocking plans for nuclear plants.

Solving many of the world’s most critical environmental challenges will, in some cases, involve doing the exact opposite of what most environmentalists want.

Rather than retreating into hair-shirt austerity, I believe that, just as technology got us into this mess, technology is vital to get us out of it.

That means embracing some things that will make a lot of Green believers choke on their organic muesli.

It has taken me a long time to reach this conclusion. I used to passionately oppose not only nuclear power but GM crops. I once even threw a pie in the face of a Danish scientist who dared to question the orthodox environmental line. So what changed?

Through research, I found that much of what I believed about environmental issues had little, if any, basis in science. Put simply, though my concerns were right, my solutions were wrong.

In my new book, I propose that there are several ‘planetary boundaries’, limits to the human interference with Earth that we can put real numbers on — including reducing atmospheric CO2 concentrations below today’s levels and dramatically halting the decline in biodiversity, which is seeing many plant and animal species killed off, mostly due to habitat erosion.

However, we must address these problems rationally, without letting our thinking be clouded by ideology or preconceptions. Campaigning groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth insist climate change is the greatest threat humanity has ever faced, while doggedly refusing to reconsider their opposition to atomic power stations, which already provide massive amounts of zero-carbon electricity and could yield much more.

Everyone agrees nuclear stations need to be properly regulated and their waste strictly safeguarded. Yet Green objections to nuclear are so extraordinarily unscientific as to be little more than urban myths.

Greenpeace routinely inflates the death toll for the 1986 Chernobyl disaster by a factor of 1,000 (the true total is likely to have been less than 50) in order to stoke fears about atomic energy.

The German Greens have forced the country’s government to forswear nuclear after the Fukushima accident in Japan, which, while serious, has so far killed no one and is unlikely to do so.

Nuclear power does not harm the planet in any meaningful way. I continue to support renewables, too, especially offshore wind, which can produce a substantial percentage of Britain’s power, but wind is not the only answer.

Nuclear fission produces no CO2 and its overall carbon emissions (factoring in concrete and uranium mining, which are necessary to create nuclear power) are comparable to those of wind turbines and lower than solar. Of course, the alternative to nuclear as our primary source of electricity is coal, which is dirtier and more dangerous in every way.

Just compare the annual carbon emissions per person of coal-dependent Australia (18 tonnes) and nuclear-friendly France (6 tonnes) to see how environment-friendly atomic power really is in climate change terms.

Had the Green movement of the Seventies and Eighties supported nuclear power — instead of violently opposing plans for greater use of atomic energy, a move that led to more coal power plants being built — we would not be facing the climate crisis we are today.

And there is a financial element, too. According to the Committee on Climate Change, nuclear is also one of the cheapest options.

Chris Huhne cited this as one of the reasons for building new nuclear plants — comparing a 3 per cent rise in energy bills in France (where 77 per cent of energy comes from nuclear power stations) this year, with British price rises three times that.

One of the reasons the Green movement is failing to attract support is that it has too much cultural baggage and is too ideologically rigid. Any reconsideration of the orthodox position — even for the sake of the environment — is seen as a betrayal.

Politically speaking, the Green Party is trapped in the irrelevance of the Far Left. Trendy lifestyle choices such as shopping at farmers’ markets don’t address the issues of climate change and diminishing biodiversity.

The Green demands that we should drive less, holiday at home, subsist on root vegetables and shiver in colder houses in order to use less energy are counter-productive as well as unnecessary. What we need to do is find a source of clean, green energy, which will provide the energy we need without radically altering the way we live.

Our environment and energy problems are solvable — but can be tackled effectively only with pragmatism, rather than ideological wishful thinking. And the litmus test for that may well be the issue of nuclear power.

The God Species — How The Planet Can Survive The Age Of Humans by Mark Lynas (Fourth Estate, £14.99).

Daily Mail, 4 July 2011