British Environment Secretary John Gummer's recent remarks concerning the US's "profligate energy consumption" is the first volley in what will be nine contentious months leading up to a critical international conference on global climate change this December in Kyoto, Japan. Mr. Gummer's open criticism of the United States was followed by reports of disagreements among European Union environment ministers on targets for reducing greenhouse emissions - indicating just how difficult it will be to reach consensus by the end of the year.
Gummer is concerned that even the most aggressive action to cut the consumption of fossil fuels by relatively small countries, like Britain, will mean little if larger industrialized countries continue at current and growing rates of consumption. While economic giants, like the US and certain members of the European Union, continue to proceed slowly in agreeing to emission reductions, removal of barriers to world trade has ignited economic development and manufacturing all around the world. Growth in countries like China and India typically means increased reliance on the least expensive and most polluting sources of energy - oil and coal.
Both the threat of global climate change and the world's growing energy demands will force participants at the Kyoto conference, and the US in particular, to reevaluate dated positions on energy policy. Washington has some difficult realities to face. American energy policy, built on the cheap and abundant oil supplies of the 20th century, continues to project a relatively stable energy supply 50 years into the future.
This ignores, however, the far-reaching nature of issues raised by the specter of global climate change. An American view that the US might buy its way out of this dilemma through new global emissions trading agreements is shortsighted at best.
'Energy independence' outdated
We can no longer think of energy in terms of "energy independence" for solely the US. With population growing around the world, exploding sales of automobiles, and dramatic increases in electricity consumption, it will be critical to develop new nonpolluting, secure sources of energy in the coming millennium. For America to be a leader in developing a global strategy on climate change it must not only own up to its responsibilities to reduce emissions, but it must also address a full range of renewable resources.
The issues raised by environmental threats (not to mention economic and national security considerations) are leading many to recognize the need for a transition away from oil- and coal-based power sources. Industrialized countries are pursuing ways to reduce emissions - ranging from retrofitting plants with energy-efficient lighting to engaging the power of the free market through emissions trading schemes. Throughout the world calls are heard for a massive shift to renewable sources of energy like solar, wind, and nuclear power. The former options are relatively noncontroversial, but nuclear power, the most advanced renewable source of power, remains a lightning rod for many, especially in the US.
The glare of Three Mile Island
American attitudes towards nuclear power are much like the proverbial deer, caught this time in the headlights of Three Mile Island. Public discussions on nuclear power typically emphasize incidents of the past rather than focus on the present. Perhaps it is telling, then, that Japan, the host of the Kyoto conference and no stranger to the destructive potential of nuclear power, today offers a solid example of a national energy policy that deserves American support.
A critical component of Japan's plans for safely and sustainably meeting their energy needs is the expanded use of nuclear energy, providing environmental benefits locally, regionally, and globally. Locally, there is less pollution in Japan's cities and countryside. Regionally, there is less acid rain caused by power production in Japan. Globally, with nuclear power production increasing at the expense of oil and/or coal, greenhouse gas emissions are greatly reduced.
Also important, Japan's electric utilities continually incorporate technological advances, such as efforts to recycle (reprocess) spent nuclear fuel to ensure the most environmentally sensitive and efficient use of resources. By reprocessing spent nuclear fuel into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, Japan maximizes use of uranium resources and is better able to manage nuclear waste.
As the United States prepares for Kyoto, it would do well to look to its host as one source of new thinking in addressing the policy conundrum of sustainable development. This term first appeared in 1987 when the World Commission on Environment and Development (known as the Bruntland Commission) released its report, "Our Common Future." In that report, sustainable development was defined as, "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
Japan's state-of-the-art use of nuclear energy will provide US and global planners with an important renewable source of power that will enable the inhabitants of the 21st century to grow and thrive as did their oil-dependent ancestors of the 20th century.
But the US, the originator of nuclear energy and once the industry leader, may have to take a back seat while other nations take the nuclear lead.
* William F. Martin served as deputy secretary of energy for President Reagan.