Tag Archives: Rainforest

Can Nuclear Power help save the Rain Forests?

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 nuclear station near a rain forest
A nuclear station near a rain forest

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. .

Explanatory Note

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.

 

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Can Better Taxation help to save the Planet?

It is the weekend and Jim is out in the local market. He enjoys buying fresh ingredients himself when he has time.

Jim buying apples in the market
Jim buying apples in the market

Every item in the market has two prices – one in local currency, and one in Q. If he buys the goods, both are automatically recorded to his account. The Q cost is a measure of the planetary damage resulting from the purchase.

There are two types of apple on display. The first have been grown in the South, in an area where apples grow well and wages are low, so their money cost is low. Their Q cost reflects the use of artificial fertiliser, mechanised agriculture, and long distance transport, and is relatively high. The calculation is realistic because every business involved in the supply must pass on the Q of the items or services that it supplies.

The second type were grown locally, using organic fertiliser. The Q cost is low, but the labour involved makes their money cost higher.

Whenever Jim buys anything the Q cost is automatically recorded as part of the purchase. Electricity, food, transport, computers, kitchen equipment, each of them has involved some planetary degradation in its manufacture and the Q cost reflects that degradation.

For larger items like kitchen equipment the Q cost can be spread over many weeks, but nevertheless it needs to be paid. Jim tends to buy goods that are well designed with a long life, so that the weekly Q cost is low.

Jim buying a washing machine
Jim buying a washing machine

Items have a high Q if fossil fuels have been burned to make them, if greenhouse gases are emitted, if rainforest has been destroyed, or if the planet has been degraded in some other way. The make up of Q is adjusted each year by an international panel to try to keep activities in balance. For example the high Q of fossil fuels may cause  a swing to bio fuels, with resulting loss of rainforests. The Q value of bio fuels can be increased to avoid this.

Jim checks his weekly tax
Jim checks his weekly tax

At the end of each week Jim checks his Q account. His home spend looks high. He uses the system to find out why, then he makes a mental note to look into better home insulation and lighting.

Why does he care? The bulk of his tax is directly related to Q. If his total weekly Q is low he pays little Qtax, but as it increases the tax rates becomes steeper and steeper.

Jim's tax bands
Jim’s tax bands

Jim has choices. He can buy his electricity from a range of sources – the more he pays the greener will be his electricity and the lower his Q bill. He can eat locally grown vegetables with modest meat portions(low Q) or select imported vegetables and large servings of meat (high Q). He can travel by bike or by public transport, or by various types of car. The greater his Q spend, the steeper his tax rate, and the more sense it makes to seek green alternatives.

The Qtax system was introduced in 2025, initially just for purchases of fossil fuels, and at rates that were easily affordable. It gradually extended over the following 25 years. This gave people chance to adjust.

Why Q? It was decided at the first meeting of the International Panel for the Quantification of Planetary Impact in 2023. They didn’t show much imagination!

Jim grumbles about the system from time to time, but  he supports it because it is fair. The poor are not penalised. Their energy use is generally small enough to leave them paying little tax. There are still examples of individual extravagance but everyone knows that those responsible are paying a great deal of tax. There is a shared international obligation because countries have Q targets and set their Qtax in order to ensure those targets are achieved. The sacrifices are considered acceptable because they are shared, because technology is constantly providing new green alternatives, and because the resulting global action is proving successful.

Why can’t we do this now? The complete system described here would take a considerable amount of international negotiation to agree how Q is calculated, to agree Q targets, and to modify international trade agreements. Each country would need time to decide how to tax Q, or whether to enforce its Q limit some other way. Implementation would also need to wait until electronic payment is the norm, because it will then be easy to add on Q.

The international agreement of Q limits for each nation is important. Without that there is likely to be considerable opposition since action by an individual nation can never be effective.

Lastly people will need time to adjust. This type of system is unfair if imposed suddenly because many people are locked into a high energy lifestyle by work or family commitments. A cut down system, just looking at a small set of big purchases – for example gas for heating, car fuel, and electricity – could be introduced more rapidly and might start the slow process of producing a green economy.

What we could and should do now is to accelerate serious research into this area. There is good work underway but its funding is intermittent. There will be many practical barriers to implementation and study is needed to find the best way forward.

There is also a need for an ethical debate. The debate needs to engage key religious and moral leaders, since their endorsement will be essential to public acceptance. An important question is the extent of the obligation of this generation to those that follow.

Follow the link for more background. You could usefully fill out the poll. Best of all please comment. Taxation will be important in driving behaviour, and it is at the heart of an urgent moral question – how do we share out the limited resources of a finite planet?

Will technology save the rain forests?

Eco-tourism 2050
Eco-tourism 2050

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.

So it's good night now to our viewers in California. See you tomorrow!
So it’s good night now to our viewers in California. See you tomorrow!

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..