It’s interesting to imagine what the planet might be like after humanity. This picture assumes we have failed to control the climate, sea levels have risen and rainfall increased. Places that are now solid dry land will flood frequently and bridges will often be destroyed. The picture shows a fish eagle – currently an African bird, returning with its lunch past the remnants of a stone road bridge in England. In the background is a thriving forest. It all looks rather pretty. I guess humanity needs to decide whether it wants to be part of a great green future, or not.
This is my latest look at what life might be like in 2050. It looks at the use of nuclear power, a topic that I have hesitated to cover because it causes so much division among those who are concerned to protect the planet. However it is an important option for 2050, which is likely to be required unless our energy use falls significantly. I apologise for the sketch, I am taking lessons but progress is slow!
A power station comes into view on a tropical coast in 2050. It is one of many nuclear stations of various types and sizes that have been built over the past 30 years.
There has been a big expansion in nuclear power because the amount of energy required by people on the planet is so large. The poorer countries in the world have all become richer and have energy requirements of their own. Transport is electric, as is all heating, so that electricity demand has soared.
There are of course major renewable installations as well. Large blocks of the Sahara desert, the Australian desert, and the North American deserts are covered in solar panels and solar concentrators for power generation. There are many floating wind turbines at sea. There have been huge strides in cutting energy use, many of which I have covered previously, such as the trend to live in cities and to use community transport rather than individual cars. However, despite these changes, the growing wealth and population of the planet mean that energy demand remains high and that nuclear power is required to meet it.
Back in 2014 there was a strong aversion to nuclear power. Many people were terrified of it. There had been an accident in Japan that contaminated a stretch of land and caused it to be evacuated. That in turn led to decisions by Germany and France to shut perfectly sound nuclear stations. The somewhat idealistic intent was to replace the nuclear stations with renewables but this proved physically impossible. The outcome was therefore an increased burning of coal and the burning of more and more bio-fuels.
Back then bio-fuel was seen as a useful way to generate electricity and power cars. It was obtainable from woodlands or from crop wastes so there was little impact on overall food markets. However as it began to be used more these sources reached capacity and bio crops began to be grown on agricultural land – land that was already under pressure from the growing demand for food. To meet the combined demand for food and bio-fuel more and more wild spaces were taken into agricultural use. Some of that land was rain forest. Eventually the demand for bio-fuel was brought under control by building large solar plants in the desert and by building more nuclear plants.
How much land could be saved by nuclear plants? A large plant like this produces the same output as 2/3 of Wales would produce if it was entirely devoted to growing bio-fuel. Rain forest areas can be more productive because they are hotter and wetter, so the area saved is rather smaller, but it is still around a quarter of Wales, three times the area of Greater London or 50 times the area of Manhattan for each large nuclear plant. For an explanation look below, underneath the poll.
Why can’t this happen now? Firstly because many green organisations fiercely oppose nuclear power. More and more people are questioning their position, but as yet there is little sign that they are changing.
Secondly nuclear power ideally needs some intense development. Most of the current investment in nuclear development is devoted to waste reprocessing and to the long term aim of making a nuclear fusion plant. We need Research and Development focused on developing plants that have lower costs, are inherently robust against natural disasters, and are quick to build. .
Suppose we compare this typical nuclear station against a bio-fuelled power station of the same output. What area of land would it take to supply the bio-fuelled station?
Assuming that we grow the best crops, process them well and burn them in the best power station, the output we might expect in Europe or North America is around 0.2 Watts for each square metre that is devoted to growing crops, on average around the year. This figure is taken from Ref. 1, which contains a full explanation. It may look small but crops grow quite slowly and the plant material needs to be converted to electricity, a process that is at best around 50% efficient.
Now how much power can the reactor produce? Let us assume that it is similar in size to the reactors planned at Hinkley Point in the UK. The two reactors on that site can produce, on average after allowing for shutdowns, nearly 3000 Megawatts.
Taking the figure of 0.2 Watts/square metre, the output from the nuclear plant therefore equates to the bio-fuel grown on 14,400 square kilometres of land, which is 5,560 square miles. That is an area nine times greater than Greater London, 24 times greater than Singapore, and 165 times greater than Manhattan. It is a square block of land 120 km (74 miles) across. It is equivalent to 2/3rds of Wales saved by this one nuclear station alone. Quite a lot!
What happens if we grow our crops in a hot, wet place? We can get more plant material out, perhaps three times more. That means that this station is worth around three Greater London’s worth of rain forest.
Imagine the scene. A dozen people crowd into a small room. The walls light up and they are in a rain forest in the Amazon Basin. The sights are all around them. The noises of the jungle fill the room. Their leader has a remote control and they move through the jungle. Suddenly one of them shouts – a sloth comes into view. It is undisturbed by the silent camera. Then they spot a jaguar and some howler monkeys, again completely unaware that they are being viewed.
An hour later they leave, to go for lunch together. They are on a week’s safari holiday in California. Tomorrow they will explore a jungle in the Congo basin, the day after they will explore in Costa Rica. The week is costly but the experience is priceless.
Meanwhile, in Borneo, another camera is moving through the jungle. All over the world people watch an orang-utan giving birth through their phones and tablets and 3D immersive equipment. Many of them know the animal well. They regularly view this jungle. The birth will generate world-wide headlines.
There are 100 of these rain forest reserves across the planet, each with its specialised wildlife. A small reserve is 10km (6 miles) square, enough to support some big animals, and many reserves are larger. All of them are pristine. They contain a full ecosystem . The animals are valuable to collectors but the local population guard them with their lives. The insects annoy the locals but they are very careful with their insecticide. Their dogs and cats are kept out. The locals know that their income depends on that wildlife.
Each reserve is virtually undisturbed by people, except for the dozens of cameras, the tracks on which they move, and their maintenance. The animals live in peace.
The economics of all this are simple. The viewers pay. The payment varies, but averages around $400 per year in 2013 terms, a similar amount to if they were viewing sports or movies. There are 9 billion people on the planet, and 100 million of them subscribe – rather less then subscribe to sports channels but still a substantial number. Half of the annual revenues of $40Bn go to support the reserves. A 10km square rain forest reserve with healthy animal life and a few rare species can earn up to $150M per year in broadcasting rights. That is around 4 times what it would earn as palm oil plantation.
The local populations have plenty of work. They provide guards. They maintain the cameras and tracks. They provide local guides, who control some of the cameras and provide commentary in different languages. They occasionally intervene in nature when disease strikes, because the extinction of a species would be an economic disaster.
As well as the broadcasting revenue there is business from researchers who come to live near the forests. Tourists come to be near the places they have grown to love on screen and to meet the guides. The local towns are booming. The national resorts have immersive rain forest experience systems for their guests.
Significant additional income comes from international efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Local governments provide support funding because of the beneficial effects of the rain forest for drainage and wider tourism. Pharmaceutical companies pay for licences to access the many types of plant life. The business case for these reserves is strong.
Some reserves are privately owned by local business people or by big international businesses. Some are owned by the local state. All are protected.
OK – let’s return to the present. Is all this possible? Why isn’t it happening? Well partly because the technology is only just becoming available. Another factor is that it is frankly heart breaking to see rain forests being destroyed, so it makes very depressing television. That would change if the rain forests were properly protected.
How much rain forest could we save? That depends on money. People in tropical countries are often poor. The local business men will always pursue profit. They will do whatever earns the best return. In 2013 we anguish about the rain forest but pay for palm oil. The result – we get palm oil. That will need to change. If we want to go green and protect the environment someone will need to pay.
Would enough people be prepared to pay? I don’t know, but I’ve included a poll below to check views.
The poll results may interest others. If tropical land owners started to see dollar potential in their rain forests they might slow down on the burning. And if big technology companies started to see significant business in rain forests they might start to invest..
This is a link to a supporting page – Nature – Rainforests which includes further background information and assumptions. It has a few more related ideas and suggestions. It also discusses some of the weaknesses in this idea, for example that it may not save very large tracts of forest. If you have any comments or advice, please use the comments box below or contact me via the form on the ‘About’ page..
- Human Impacts (taiwanrainforest.wordpress.com)
- Rain forest threat: 30,000 miles of Amazon roads built in just 3 years (nbcnews.com)
- FDA moves to ban trans-fats – good for us, bad for the planet (organicmattersblog.com)
- Palm Oil Is Everywhere. Here’s What to Do About It. (ensia.com)