Monday, February 29, 2016

Combatting Air Pollution:

A Role for Nuclear Power

We have all gotten so caught up in the climate change discussion in recent years, that we have nearly forgotten that fossil fuel emissions have been an issue for a very long time.  We used to worry about air pollution.  A recent article noting that air pollution kills over 5 million people a year worldwide suggests we still should think about air pollution. 

It's not hard to guess why air pollution was pushed off our radar screens--it is generally a more localized phenomenon, so maybe you don't think about it if you live far from major cities or industrial centers.  And in some areas, a big contributor to air pollution is from automobiles, which perhaps diverts attention from the fossil fuel power plants.

So perhaps it seemed like climate change was a more universal issue.  But focusing just on climate change has led to debates about whether climate change is real.  And in some circles, focusing on climate change has diverted attention to discussions of ways to slow climate change by geoengineering schemes such as injecting aerosols into the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight, or by sucking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or by adaptation strategies such as seawalls.

Of course, arguments can also be made that this or that portion of air pollution is due to other causes--transportation, the use of coal, wood and charcoal to cook and to heat homes in some countries, etc.

However, looking at the two issues together makes a compelling argument that fossil fuels are a key contributor to two very important environmental concerns--air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.  Therefore, we should try to get away from the single argument about climate change, and instead address both air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions simultaneously.

In the long term, this means a number of things.  In the developing world, this means moving away from wood, charcoal and coal for home heating and cooking.  All over the world, it means turning to clean sources of electricity generation--nuclear power and renewable energy.  It also means moving away from the use of petroleum for transportation.  And that, in turn, may mean yet greater demands for electricity, and therefore, greater demands for electricity from nuclear power and other clean energy resources.

The bottom line is that, if we look at energy sources and effects holistically, the case for turning to clean energy sources becomes even stronger.  And the resulting growth in demand for these sources means that we will have to exploit all clean energy sources at our disposal. 



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