Nuclear energy and COP26

10 February 2021

Tim Yeo reflects on 2020 and looks ahead to COP26 in November 2021

ONE POSITIVE OUTCOME OF THE COVID-19 induced worldwide economic slump is the unforeseen drop in greenhouse gas emissions it has caused. In this respect the baseline for the discussions at COP26 this November in Glasgow has improved.

Postponing this gathering may also be a blessing in disguise. Holding a COP with an absentee climate-denying US President tweeting sneeringly from across the Atlantic in the background, as he frantically tried to cling to power, would not have facilitated progress.

Getting almost two hundred countries to commit to emissions cuts in the Paris Accord, after 2015’s COP21, was no mean feat. It was due in part to the Obama/Xi Jinping agreement brokered in advance and the thorough preparations of France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. President Biden will try hard to achieve something similar and the EU will likely be receptive, though China may be less amenable this time.

There is a lot at stake for the nuclear industry too. The growing urgency of the need to completely decarbonise electricity generation offers it, at least in theory, a huge opportunity.

Since 2015, recognition of the scale of the climate change threat has risen steadily. Despite this, nuclear has been in retreat in some places and few western countries still have active development programmes. By contrast Chinese and Russian nuclear companies are advancing at home and abroad and South Korea’s export activity continues, although has cut domestic construction.

Across the world renewables have won widespread popular and political support. COP26 may therefore be a last chance for nuclear to stake its claim to be an essential part of the solution to climate change. In the next five years many governments must choose which technologies will enable them to reach net zero by mid century.

On the face of it nuclear has plenty going for it. Historically only two countries, France and Sweden, have ever cut carbon emissions as fast as every country must now do in future. Both did so by investing heavily in new nuclear capacity.

Its environmental credentials are impeccable. Life cycle emissions are similar to wind and well below solar and hydropower. With a diversity of fuel sources available nuclear scores highly on security criteria as well. Both the IPCC and the International Energy Agency envisage that it will have a growing role.

Nevertheless, many environmentalists remain ambivalent about nuclear and some are openly hostile. Germany’s Green Party is the latest in a long line of political groups to come out in favour of a 100% renewable energy policy.

This unquestioning enthusiasm ignores the fact that flexible, large, long-term, low-cost electricity storage is not yet available. It also ignores how the system costs of an energy network rise sharply when reliance on intermittent power sources increases — as a recent New Nuclear Watch Institute study underlined.

The UK Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy believes these costs add between 40% and 90% to the cost of electricity generated by wind and solar, bringing it broadly into line with nuclear.

To convert these advantages into a high profile for nuclear at COP26 the industry must remember why COP21 succeeded and plan with similar care.

Firstly, it needs all three big players — US, China and the EU — unequivocally on its side. Fortunately President Biden envisages nuclear as part of his route to the goal of carbon-free electricity by 2035. China’s support for nuclear is steady.

The EU however, despite its commitment to net zero, is ambivalent. Its taxonomy for sustainable activities is very supportive of renewables but cautious about nuclear. If the US and China can persuade the EU to be more positive, the tone for the COP will be set and other countries will likely follow.

Secondly, the industry must engage with the UK as the COP26 host. In this context it is encouraging that Prime Minister Johnson included support for nuclear as the third item in his Ten Point Plan for a UK green industrial revolution. The aim must be to get explicit recognition of the essential role of nuclear in the global response to climate change into the COP26 conclusions.

Thirdly, nuclear must argue its case constructively. Although it provides energy security, sustainability and affordability it never claims to be the complete answer. It is complementary to renewables and other low-carbon technologies and will always support and cooperate with them.

COP26 can and should be a turning point for nuclear. By taking its rightful place as a leader in the world’s greener cleaner future it will also create well-paid highly skilled jobs and stimulate economic recovery.

Author information: Tim Yeo is Chairman of The New Nuclear Watch Institute

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