Looking for Imagination in Energy Policy (Part 1) - Sustainability & Nuclear Energy

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Sustainability and Nuclear Energy

In the Introduction to this blog series Looking for Imagination in Energy Policy, I used the example of early mapmakers obtaining information – some fact, some fiction – to find new ways of seeing and depicting the world.  

Through imagination, mapmakers created narratives of what “lies out there”—sometimes as pure speculation, other times as navigation guides to explorers and mariners.

What they imagined was not risk-free for explorers and sailors, who encountered hazards, shoals and straits where the map said there wasn’t any; or found only open sea where land was supposed to be.

Here’s a great example (see map above).

This is the infamous “Zeno Map”, Septentrionalium Partium Nova Tabula, created by a certain Nicolo Zeno of Venice and published in 1561.

The map purports to illustrate the regions visited in the 1360s by ancestors of his, a pair of brothers (also named Zeno). The story of their adventures is somewhat complicated and some regard it as a 16th-century hoax.

What interests us here is what happens when the imagination takes root; and when the imagination ossifies to mislead and confuse.

First, there’s a large island in the mid-North Atlantic that you’ve never seen before – the legendary “Friesland”. It is sitting pretty much squarely on the 60˚North latitude. What appears to be Greenland is a huge east-west slab that connects to the Scandinavian continent. Moreover, there are strange places with names like “Estotiland” and “Drogeo”.

Unfortunately for mariners and explorers, the esteemed mapmakers Gerhard Mercator and Abraham Ortelius took the Zeno map as authentic and incorporated its geography, islands and names into their influential maps of 1569 and 1570, respectively.

When Martin Frobisher set off on the first of his three voyages (1576) to discover a passage to Cathay and all its riches, he took with him the Mercator and Ortelius “sayling cardes” (maps) as navigational guides (and possibly the Zeno map or a derivative as well).

In those early sea-faring days, most experienced sailors could locate their latitude reasonably well. Longitude, however, was impossible to calculate (and would remain so under Harrison’s clocks in the mid-18th century). So what Frobisher did was emulate Columbus – they sailed west along a predictable latitude for the simple reason that they knew where it was and could find their way home again.

When Frobisher eventually reached landfall on the south-eastern coast of Baffin’s Bay – he thought he’d landed on the island of Friesland. Looking at the Zeno map, you can see that Greenland is about 6˚ North of the 60th parallel (plus about 20˚ too far to the west).

As a result, mapmakers, relying on accounts and logs of Frobisher’s voyages, accepted that he’d landed on Friesland. For many years thereafter, “Frobisher’s Bay” stayed in Friesland, confusing sailors, explorers and merchant adventurers alike.

Frobisher’s strong belief that he’d visited Friesland “caused great historical turmoil in the cartography of this north-west region”, as one writer put it. This phantom island bedeviled accurate depiction of the location of Frobisher’s Bay (in today’s Nunavut). More confusion set in when the English explorer John Davis, sailing to the region a decade later, put it on the southern tip of Greenland!

What does this example tell us? That a spurious confabulation, such as Zeno’s map, needs evidence before it is taken as gospel. That insistence on a single line of thinking – straight across latitude 60˚without looking left or right – on the basis of such speculative “platts” and “cardes” leads to errors. Finally, that taking as authoritative the adoption of unsupported conjecture by “big names” (Mercator, Ortelius) only perpetrates the error. The mind becomes closed and unimaginative as a result.

In an analogous way, I suggest we need more open-minded imagination in how we connect climate policy with energy policy.

In short: a narrative of the pathways to a net-zero emissions future, in which climate goals and practical solutions for reaching them intertwine. As a result, a new, more realistic policy map showing effective solutions.

Let’s start by freeing the term sustainability from Zeno-like orthodoxies that condemn us to travel along the same line of latitude towards a phantom Friesland.

I advocate that sustainability of an energy source should be evaluated on whether (a) it reduces GHG emissions substantially; (b) it does so while generating significant quantities of clean energy (heat + electricity); and (c) it does no significant harm to people and the environment.

Given the urgency to reduce carbon emissions – to do as much as we can and as fast as we can – all technologies that meet the criteria of sustainability listed above are welcome.

That is why I was pleased to see the recent Impact Paper published by the Conference Board of Canada – Beyond Exclusions: Sustainable Finance for Nuclear Energy. Because we need new thinking and imagination with respect to “sustainable finance”.

Such new thinking would position nuclear energy not simply as a risk to be contained, but instead as having risks that are well mitigated by regulatory and corporate governance. The focus of sustainability then shifts to the contribution of nuclear energy production to the broader context: namely, the social and economic goal of reduced carbon emissions.

This approach to sustainability provides “more nuanced, context-dependent evaluations of ESG performance” for nuclear sector companies. From a finance perspective, it gives a more complete or “holistic” picture of a company’s credit worthiness.

And why is this important?

Because these companies are contributing to a country’s “distinct national transition priorities” – or, in Canada’s case, to a “net-zero transition”.  Therefore, say the Conference Board analysts, “Governments that include nuclear energy as part of their net-zero transition should include the technology in their green bond frameworks.”

With the net-zero transition contribution and with risk mitigated through government regulation and corporate governance, the ESG (environmental, social, governance) profile of such companies becomes worthy of sustainable financing (via debt instruments like green bonds).

With greater capital access and investment, the nuclear industry sector can help our countries achieve their net-zero transition targets – through effective performance, embodying ESG good practices.

In fact, the recent over-subscribed issuance of green bond financing by Bruce Power proves that this is no longer something to be imagined. It’s here now.

Financial market analysts are starting to realize that sustainable finance and nuclear energy production fit well together.

All it takes is imagination. As Mark Carney says, there’s fifty shades of green.