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It is urgent to commit to the low-carbon transition

Energy and climate expert, Jean-Marc Jancovici calls on us to heed the urgency of taking action to tackle global warming.
Prise de parole JM créa 2_2

Experts’ reports on the climate emergency are proliferating. Where do we currently stand? 

Jean-Marc Jancovici: The intense “development” that our species went through in the 19th and 20th centuries was essentially based on the growth of abundant, seemingly limitless energy, accessible at low cost. This energy was fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal). Thanks to these fuels, we were able to provide people with an army of mechanical slaves, ranging from mills to container vessels, and tractors to cranes, as well as textile plants, telecommunications networks, etc.  

For more than 40 years now, these fuels have accounted for over 80% of the world’s supply of energy, which is constantly increasing, feeding a fleet of machines that does likewise.

J.M.J : As a result, CO2 emissions have seen exponential growth, unhindered by the numerous climate conferences and experts’ reports. These emissions are increasing greenhouse gases, which inject more energy into the climate mechanism and alter it.
This gives rise to changes in temperatures, rainfall, the frequency and intensity of fires, floods, droughts, storms and other “anomalies”, the melting of the ice caps and glaciers causing a rise in sea levels that will exceed several meters and, in the end, harsher living conditions for a growing proportion of the world’s population.

Is it too late to act?

J.-M. J.: Since excess CO2 will remain in the atmosphere for a very long time, the consequences will continue to intensify long after we have started to lower emissions. Consequently, when we are at a standstill, it won’t be enough to just move into first gear, we need to go straight into fifth. 

Very clearly, to meet the target of limiting global warming to below 2 °C, we need to start lowering man-made greenhouse gas emissions by 4% a year, starting tomorrow.

J.M.J : this would allow a 3-fold reduction in global emissions by the time my children reach my age.
How? By drastically reducing our consumption, and by opting for low-carbon energy sources such as nuclear energy and renewable energies, with the latter often being more appropriate for heating than for electricity.

On a global scale, we firstly need to shut down all power plants running on coal, gas or oil. Domestically, priority actions concern buildings (insulation, low-carbon heating using heat pumps and wood), low-carbon transport (reduction in the weight and power of cars, use of public transit systems, urban development programs, short supply circuits, etc.).

What is the place of nuclear energy in the energy transition?

J.-M. J.: Based on the fission of a nucleus, rather than on the combustion of organic residues (fossil fuels), nuclear energy is one of the low-carbon energies (despite the emissions linked to upstream and downstream operations) with emissions 
times lower than those of gas-generated electricity 
times lower than those of coal-generated electricity.
Yet nuclear energy only produces 10% of the world’s electricity. This proportion must increase rapidly for this technique to contribute to a reduction in emissions.

In France, there is a gulf between the perception of risks in civil nuclear power and actual facts. For example, 69% of French people think that nuclear energy contributes to global warming (while the nuclear reaction actually emits zero CO2), and that nuclear waste (which has never caused a single death) poses more risks than road accidents or domestic accidents (the latter accounting for 20,000 deaths per year in France). Nuclear energy is often seen on an equal footing with climate change (a choice between a rock and a hard place), even though climate change has the potential to reduce the life expectancy of billions of people. They are not in the same league!

What about renewable energies?

J.-M. J.: These are historically the energies we used before fossil fuels (sun, wood, wind and water). Wind and solar power – which are the most frequently mentioned in speeches and in the amounts invested to develop these energies – have intrinsic physical limitations (they are diffuse and intermittent) that greatly reduce their ability to replace fossil fuels. The latter are manageable, easy to transport and store (they have high energy densities per unit of volume) and can be used to operate powerful machines.

The current living standards of the earth’s 8 billion people has been made possible by the 200-fold increase in humanity’s muscle power provided by machines that mainly use fossil fuels. Unfortunately, renewable energies do not have the same potential. If we want to preserve most of these “modern” comforts while combating climate change, nuclear energy will provide that as a supplement to renewable energies, which are better suited for heat production (fuel, manufacturing industry, heating) rather than electricity.

You’re often branded as pessimistic, even alarmist…

J.-M. J.: People prompting others to look at problems in a realistic way are often faced with the same criticism, but I would much prefer to have only good news to share with people.
The persistence of climate change is one of the most staggering things: if tomorrow we suddenly stopped emitting greenhouse gases worldwide
% of the excess CO2 we created would still be in the atmosphere after a century

% would still be there after 1000 years
J.M.J : this persistent effect is due to the great chemical stability of CO2. Because CO2 is inert in the atmosphere, climate change will continue to amplify for decades, centuries or millennia, depending on how we look at it.

However, the cards we still hold will enable us to reduce the impact for our children and our grandchildren. It’s up to us to act!
Our economic systems have not integrated the finite nature of the planet's resources and the world is now addicted to fossil fuels. In Europe, we have been experiencing an energy decline since 2007, which is actually minimizing the GDP growth of our economies.
Jean-Marc Jancovici

Jean-Marc Jancovici


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