Green credits pass the buck

By Cameron Baughen

Are nuclear reactors green? Well, the Canadian government thinks so with its recent attempts to include nuclear reactors as power plants worthy of "green credits."

Green credits come under the system that controls pollution by allowing for creation of tradable pollution rights. In this system, an acceptable amount of pollution is set and broken up into tradable permits that are sold to companies. These companies then trade these permits according to the laws of supply and demand, with companies that pollute more buying permits from companies that pollute less. In this way, pollution levels are kept low and polluters pay more, which, in turn, encourages companies to develop cleaner systems.

Currently, countries are establishing the rules for a future global emissions trading system and determining what pollution levels each country is allocated. One such initiative in this process allows countries and companies the right to claim technological innovations or natural carbon sinks, like forests, as part of the credit system.

Therefore, if a country like Canada or Brazil decides to protect a forest, they can count the extra CO2 sucked up by the trees as a green credit, which permits them to pollute by that same amount.
In the case of nuclear reactors, Canada claims that these power stations do not emit greenhouse gases, like coal powered stations, and should be viewed as an environmentally friendly option.

This comes right on the heels of an October CANDU plant leak, which seriously contaminated 22 workers in South Korea; a serious Japanese leak; problems in the Pickering, Ontario power plant; as well as concerns over ex-Soviet plant safety. Also, the Canadian nuclear program is accused of partial responsibility for the arms race between India and Pakistan, had its share of accidents in Canada and abroad, and created a nuclear waste problem that will take tens of thousands of years to settle.

There have also been recent protests over the transportation to and use of US and Russian plutonium (which is not only radioactive but also highly toxic) in Chalk River, Ontario. Clearly, although these plants do not emit carbon dioxide, it is wrong to compare this technology with solar or wind power.

Like most things in principle, the economic idea of green credits is very appealing. In practice, though, there are lots of concerns over just how they should be applied, especially in what counts as a carbon credit. One is that these carbon credits don’t reduce emissions, only shift them into existing or not well understood sources. For example, forest and ocean ecosystems are still difficult to understand and assess and don’t take into effect that even if the CO2 in emissions are taken up they might not be equivalent factors.

Another concern is that a global system of credits may allow companies to buy large chunks of third world ecosystems and use those as hedges against their emissions. This clearly avoids the purpose of the credits and can potentially damage the people in these developing nations. The final problem in viewing the earth or pollution as a commodity is that it causes us to lose the ability to see it in any other way.

An international system of pollution trading is going to work only if it’s final goal remains the protection of the entire environment and the concerns about it are addressed now in it’s infancy. By using nuclear power as an environmental option, the government of Canada has missed this point, and forces us to question whether they are really committed to protecting the environment or simply want to appear that way.

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