The Economist on past and future emissions cuts


Chart 1 – click to embiggen

The above graphic is from The deepest cuts, a contribution fromThe Economist to grappling with the “big picture” on effective carbon avoidance strategies.There are some obvious problems with the numbers in Chart 1 – particularly the Cumulative Emissions avoided by Hydropower and Nuclear. There are also some very big issues with the Chart 2 where authors attempt to project the carbon avoidance situation in 2020. I  addressed some of these issues in my comments to the article:

I hope this is just the beginning of an ongoing Economist project to refine and update an understanding of what is working, what is not working – all in the context of the essential measure of cost/benefit, specifically cost-per-ton-CO2-avoided.

I need to highlight a few errors in your data presentation. In your Chart 1 you report Cumulative Emissions Avoided for both Hydropower and Nuclear that understate the actual avoidance by roughly thirty times. Nuclear and hydropower avoidance should be about 64 and 90 GtCO2-eq respectively vs. your 2.2 and 2.8 GtCO2-eq. I derived these values from two sources. First, the IAEA report you referenced Climate Change And Nuclear Power 2013 states on page 14

Over the past 50 years, the use of nuclear power has resulted in the avoidance of significant amounts of GHG emissions around the world. Globally, the amount of avoided emissions is comparable to that from hydropower.

From inspection of IAEA FIG. 5 we can see that cumulative historical Hydropower avoidance is very roughly 25 GtCO2-eq greater than the nuclear avoidance, but otherwise similar. But what is the cumulative avoidance? in “Prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions from historical and projected nuclear power” Pushker and Hansen, 2013 calculated that the cumulative global CO2 emissions emissions avoided by nuclear power is 64 GtCO2-eq. Here’s their Figure 3, page 12 for both historical and projected emissions avoided:

Click to embiggen

The authors calculated the 64 GtCO2-eq avoidance based on a different IAEA source document: Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Period up to 2050: 2011 Edition; International Atomic Energy Agency, 2011.

Is 64 GtCO2-eq a big number? It is a Very Big Number, as Pushker and Hansen 2013 contrast to 35 years of USA coal emissions:

For instance, 64 GtCO2-eq amounts to the cumulative CO2 emissions from coal burning over approximately the past 35 yr in USA

Chart 2: Click to embiggen

Regarding your Chart 2, forecasting “the policies likely to have the biggest impact in 2020” is a courageous undertaking. To make useful projections requires a deep knowledge of the energy industry, the electric power industry, economic forecasting and the political trends of the significant emitting countries. That is a Very Big Ask, so I decided to have a look for related work by the firm retained by The Economist: namely Climate Action Tracker. The principles of this consulting firm are listed as Dr. Bill Hare, Dr. Niklas Höhne, Dr. Johannes Gütschow and Dr. Michiel Schaeffer. The first three gentlemen are affiliated with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research (PIK). That affiliation immediately boosted my estimate of the Climate Action Tracker qualifications because I have been studying the work of other PIK researchers who have been publishing very important and original work on the difficult subject of integrating variable renewable generation sources, especially at potentially high future penetration levels. This work requires a deep understanding of electric power systems. In particular I will recommend these three PIK papers:

  1. Hirth, Lion, The Optimal Share of Variable Renewables. How the Variability of Wind and Solar Power Affects Their Welfare-Optimal Deployment (November 8, 2013). FEEM Working Paper No. 90.2013. Available at SSRN: or
  2. Ueckerdt, Falko and Hirth, Lion and Luderer, Gunnar and Edenhofer, Ottmar, System LCOE: What are the Costs of Variable Renewables? (January 14, 2013). Available at SSRN: or
  3. Hirth, Lion and Ueckerdt, Falko and Edenhofer, Ottmar, Why Wind is Not Coal: On the Economics of Electricity (April 24, 2014). FEEM Working Paper No. 39.2014. Available at SSRN: or

What I found in an afternoon of Internet research on Climate Action Tracker gives me concern about the Chart 2 conclusions. You have probably noticed in Chart 2 that in the six short years to 2020 nuclear power has become so insignificant it doesn’t even make the top-eleven list. That is puzzling, as nuclear power is currently the largest source of non-hydro emission-free electricity.

I confess that all of my searching for anything related to nuclear power trends in publications by Climate Action Tracker principles is a single update:  Climate Action Tracker Update, 30 November 2012 from which I have extracted the only two, widely separated paragraphs wherein nuclear is even mentioned:

…Society also would lose the ability to choose whether it wants technologies like carbon capture and storage and nuclear energy, because those, along with bio-energy, would likely have to be deployed on a larger scale.
…More pressure on future policy requirements. For example, full global participation would be required after 2020, and society may have little freedom to choose technologies, such as the freedom to reject large-scale nuclear energy, CCS, or bio-energy.

The only way I can read these comments is that the authors political view is that nuclear power should be rejected. This supports my conclusion that the members of Climate Action Tracker are possibly experts in climate science, but perhaps not so expert in the electric power industry and the economics of energy. The economics is fundamental to policies that can be implemented in the real world.

2 thoughts on “The Economist on past and future emissions cuts

  1. I am working in the energy policy field and found your analysis of the economist article very insightful. To add to your conclusion, I think the denial of a nuclear power as a “green” energy source has been a longstanding rhetoric in the US, as opposed to many European states that incorporate nuclear in their energy portfolio to a great extent.

    • Thanks for your comments. Which EU states give to new nuclear plants the same incentives as new solar/wind?

      I’m keen to know if you have any criticism of the PIK papers I referenced by Lion Hirth et al. These are the best sources I have found on high-penetration VER. I expected these papers would generate a LOT of angry pushback. The only error I’ve noted is not an error really because they did not attempt to do LCA from scratch, but the EROI of current LWR nuclear with centrifuge enrichment is probably a good bit higher – perhaps in the 200 range.

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