We can cope with climate change

1 February 2019
Bart De Wever

“We must dare to invest in the future and at the very least dare to keep the newest nuclear reactors open,” states party chairman Bart De Wever in an opinion piece.

As a teenager in the 1980s, I was convinced that the acid rain was going to kill all the forests of Europe. I remember one Wednesday afternoon taking the tram to the city to look at the statues at the cathedral gate because I had read that the acid rain would irreparably disfigure them and was really afraid I would never see them again.

The threat of acid rain was eventually averted; the new nuclear power stations played a role in that then. Later on, I learned that my generation was not the only one concerned about the end of the world. Long before that, the end of human existence had been predicted several times in almost apocalyptic terms, unless we changed our lives drastically.

All these predicted fatal crises were eventually resolved by human ingenuity. You would expect that over the course of time we would learn to approach such messages with more reason and a little less emotion. But that does not happen. And so, once again, we are being bombarded with stories about how CO2 emissions threaten the planet, how it is actually far too late and that we are already doomed.

Man has an undeniable impact on nature. A century ago, malaria was still an indigenous disease, and people died of polio or measles. Our rivers were open sewers and the oil caked at the quays of the Scheldt. Today the Ghent Bar is open again and fish are swimming back into the Scheldt. Flemish air quality is improving year after year. And even the wolf is back.

We are moving forward, and that is thanks to the power of human innovation and technological progress. We have to move away from the doomsday scenarios and think in terms of profit scenarios. These require a fair cost-benefit analysis of the measures taken and to be taken. However, anyone who puts that on the table is dismissed as someone who denies the problem. Only the formulation of ever more ambitious climate targets seems to be an acceptable answer.

Objectives that we cannot achieve because the technology is not yet ready to realise the transition while maintaining economic growth and prosperity. And that gives the doom-mongers free rein to demand completely unrealistic behavioural changes. Air travel, pets, a hearth fire or even a well-filled sandwich, it seems that soon these will only be available to those who can afford them.

Because the burden of these behavioural measures will fall on the citizen. And that will not be a problem for those who can afford solar panels or an electric car. But those who pay through the nose for green invoices do not have the luxury of worrying about the end of the century. They are worried about the end of the month.

There is no doubt that we have to work on reducing CO2 and phasing out our fossil fuel dependency. And all aspects of the policy are highlighted here: urban planning, building regulations, ecofiscality, the greening of the vehicle fleet, clean energy, water management, CO2 reduction in industry, modal shift in mobility, renovation, etc.

But the real key to this lies in human creativity. With our ability to adapt and to reinvent ourselves. Take the MYRRHA reactor, in which we have already invested hundreds of millions. This will enable us to test the safest and most modern nuclear power reactors, which will even allow us to recycle nuclear waste partially. However, by the time the research is concluded, we should have left nuclear power long ago. That is totally incomprehensible. We just have to dare to invest in the future and at least have the courage to keep the most recent nuclear reactors open.

The technology available for renewable energy will not be sufficient to meet our current needs, let alone those of a future without fossil fuels. If the answer then is economic decline and social breakdown through massive job losses, then I pass. But the point is just that this is not at all necessary. The far-reaching energy transition that we are facing may turn out to be an economic opportunity.

Our fossil fuels are finite and make our households, businesses and mobility directly dependent on non-Western countries. The exit from fossil energy thus offers an enormous opportunity to make us more autonomous, stronger and more resilient. A mix between renewable and nuclear energy is the best guarantee of affordability, security and sustainability. I have every confidence that we can meet that challenge.

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