Will much change after the climate change conference?

1 February 1998

The third conference on climate change, known as COP3*, held in Kyoto during December, achieved significant agreement on emission reduction targets, even for the main energy users of Japan, the USA and the EU. However, the question of how to achieve the targets through, for example, emission trading regimes, sanctions and a greater use of nuclear power, is to be left to later conferences.

Under the new protocol agreed at Kyoto, most of the main industrialised nations are committed to substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions: Japan is to reduce its levels by 6%; the US by 7%; and the European Union by 8%. The reductions are relative to the 1990 levels of each and are to become effective between 2008 and 2012. Altogether 38 industrialised nations, the so-called Annex I nations, are included in the protocol and different reduction targets have been agreed for each participant. For example, under the convention Australia, Iceland and Norway are allowed to increase emissions, while New Zealand, Russia and the Ukraine are allowed no change in emission levels. The combined effect of these commitments will be to bring about a 5% reduction of the 1990 level of greenhouse gas emissions by the industrialised nations.

Although the agreement did not go far enough to satisfy climate change specialists, the fact that consensus could actually be reached is quite an achievement considering the different motives and starting positions of the principle parties. Ratification of the protocol by the US is dependent on whether the US Senate can be persuaded that enough has been done to include developing nations, which have agreed in principle to be included in future agreements but have made no definite commitments. Other open questions include how trading of emission units will be carried out and how the so-called legally binding agreements will be enforced.

COP3 was intended to provide the basis for agreements on emission reduction targets, while the more thorny issue of how to achieve them being left until later meetings. Consequently, official announcements do not record the potential benefits to be gained by using nuclear or renewable sources of energy. However, major representatives of the nuclear industry, such as the Uranium Institute, Japan Atomic Industry Forum (JAIF), the European Atomic Forum (Foratom) and the US Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), were in Kyoto and, with other non-government organisations, were actively involved in the meetings. These groups held several press conferences and also organised a seminar with the title: Countering climate change and non-fossil fuel’s future.


The basic theme of all the nuclear organisations was that both nuclear power and all forms of renewable energy will be required if carbon dioxide emission targets are to be achieved. Unfortunately, this mood was not shared by all those present, some of whom entered the symposium carrying placards with messages such as “No nukes – no fossil for Asia” and “Japan – don’t export nuclear reactors to Asia.”

In Japan, approximately 30% of the electricity is already nuclear generated and Japan’s plans to meet its original target of 5% reduction of CO2 emissions include building 20 more nuclear power plants by 2010. While this will be very difficult to achieve it will be even more difficult to solve both resource and environmental issues without these new units. These plants are already in the long term energy programme and, for some of them, plans are well advanced. However, substantial political will is still required to solve some siting problems.

In Europe, one third of electricity production is nuclear and in some countries, notably Belgium, France and Sweden, over 50% comes from nuclear plants. Significantly, the CO2 emissions of Sweden (95% of power provided by nuclear & hydro sources) and France (80% nuclear) are the lowest in Europe at around 1.8 - 2.0 t of CO2 per person in 1990. The use of nuclear power in Europe avoids the emission of around 700 million t of CO2 per year, equivalent to that emitted by all the personal cars in Europe. According to Foratom, the use of nuclear power is hardly mentioned in Europe. However, the electricity industry is being liberalised and nuclear energy is competing successfully in the new market. In England the output of nuclear generated electricity has increased and prices have come down. France and some other countries are planning to increase the electrical output of their existing units in the near future. Public opinion polls generally show that the majority support the continued operation of safe nuclear plants. Foratom stressed that the political community must recognise the usefulness of nuclear power.

In the US, the 107 nuclear units, generating about 20% of the electricity produced, annually avoids the discharge of 539 million t of CO2. This is equivalent to that produced from 3/4 of the cars on US roads. The US DOE has estimated that the CO2 emissions from electric utilities will increase 40% above 1990 levels by 2015, assuming that nuclear plants are taken out of service when their licences expire. This estimate assumes a 30% increase in electricity demand and also takes into consideration the benefits of introducing combined cycle plants and renewable sources of energy. A 35-fold increase in solar and wind power would be needed to replace nuclear power in the US without satisfying the anticipated increase in demand.

According to an NEI spokesman, assuming plants apply for, and are granted, the ability to recapture construction time, their licences will begin to expire in 2009 which, of course, is just when the CO2 emission agreements come into effect. Currently, the US cannot even achieve 1990 emission levels without the continued use of nuclear power. Most US nuclear units have operating costs of around 1.92 cents per kWh and are capable of running for an additional 20 years beyond their present licence periods. New units, however, are unlikely to be ordered until the middle of the next decade.

In short, with the possible exception of Japan, it may not be expedient for politicians to advocate nuclear power, but they would be wise to keep their options open by making sure that the present level of nuclear generation is maintained.


Many Japanese speakers stressed that our current life styles cannot be maintained and will have to be changed. In Japan, CO2 emissions have already increased by 10% since 1990. Japanese industry makes very efficient use of energy and emissions from industrial users have not increased over this period. However, in the domestic sector energy use has increased 15.5% and transport CO2 emissions have increased by 22.3%, largely due to increasing engine sizes. Clearly, these trends must be reversed for CO2 emissions to be cut.

A World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) representative from the Netherlands referred to a study, made by Utrecht University, in which it was claimed that Dutch CO2 emissions could be reduced by as much as 80% of 1990 levels by the middle of the next century. In the representative’s view, improved efficiency at the point of use was the most effective in CO2 reduction. However, combined heat and power, recycling of materials and the use of renewables all have a part to play. He sited a commitment made by the AEG company to improve the efficiency of its appliances by 25% over the next two years. Integrated energy systems, including combined heat and power, district heating, heat pumps and fuel cells would effectively reduce energy requirements, he said, to the point where no nuclear power would be required.

In contrast, reports implied that American users would not be expected to make any sacrifices. Dale E Heydlauff of American Electric Power (AEP) claimed that the utilities would be asked to make the cuts in CO2 emissions (see COAL section below). As he put it, “users have votes, power plants don’t”. It was reported in the media that America intends to achieve its targets mainly by buying emission quotas from other countries. However, the protocol clearly states that any trading of emission quotas must be supplemental to domestic action and so only half of the target can be achieved in this way.


Renewables currently only provide 7% of the power generated in Europe, 6% is from hydro and 1% from solar, wind power and biomass. The EU has set itself the ambitious target of doubling renewable sources of energy by 2010 and as the contribution from hydro cannot be increased significantly, other renewable sources will have to be expanded very rapidly.

Photovoltaic solar power is still expensive but is becoming cheaper and is already finding applications in remote locations. Japan has some interesting schemes for supplying small islands with photovoltaic–diesel generator hybrid systems.

Wind power, on the other hand, is already well established in favourable locations in California, Germany, Holland and India. While subsidies or special government regulations have helped, there are sound reasons for encouraging the use of wind power, even if it is not completely competitive

A new Japanese venture company, ECO power, says the figures show that wind power is a viable option in many parts of Japan. Its first generator was expected to go into service shortly in Hokkaido.

At present Japan has only about 12 MW of wind generators compared with 1750 MW in America, 560 MW in India and 30 MW in China. ECO Power plans to install “several tens” of megawatts of wind power this year. Although some problems remain with regard to the regulations controlling the sale of wind power to the utilities, the major utilities are supporting ECO in getting these regulations changed.


This is hardly a non-fossil fuel, but its inclusion on the agenda allowed Heydlauff to describe some of the problems facing American utilities. His own company, AEP, burns 52 million t of coal a year.

Heydlauff explained that US utilities would have to make massive conversions to natural gas to meet 1990 emission levels. By including figures for predicted load growth, he said the percentage of electricity produced by gas-fired plants would have to be increased from 10% in 1995 to 70% in 2035. This would be impracticable and, if it were done, the proved reserves of natural gas would be almost depleted by 2035. In addition, the present coal plants have a 60-70 year life and premature closure would have large financial impacts. In his view, integrated coal gasification combined cycle (IGCC) plants would be the best solution, but they would require massive amounts of development funding. However, even IGCC would only have a marginal impact and, alone, would not achieve the 1990 targets.

Heydlauff may have a vested interest in being pessimistic, but his presentation showed how difficult it will be for the US to meet its targets unless changes are made in life style and energy consumption.


One of the features of the protocol, which is controversial but was probably vital in achieving an agreement, is the concept of trading emission quotas. According to the protocol, emissions trading can only take place between the 38 Annex I countries and must result in an overall reduction in emissions. It is generally expected that some countries will not use their full emission quotas and will be prepared to sell them. For example, both Russia and the Ukraine, which are in Annex I, already have emissions levels well below that of 1990 and have zero emission reduction targets. However, it is by no means certain that the economies of these countries will continue to decline and that future quotas will be available for sale.

The EU has compromised by relaxing its target from a 15% reduction to 8% and although there is an option to carry forward any ’undershoot’ of emission targets the EU could either reduce its efforts or continue with the good work and sell its surplus emission quotas.


Most of the outstanding issues of the conference, such as trading regimes and sanctions against those countries emitting too much, are due to be resolved at the next COP, to be held in Buenos Aires in late 1998.

That an agreement was reached in Kyoto was something of a miracle, but much remains to be done. One thing, however, is certain, the situation would be much worse if there were no nuclear plants.

Hollow victory at Kyoto

The outcome of the Conference on Global Warming seems to be a universal sigh of relief that the talks did not break down completely. The victory, at least for the industrialised nations, is that a further promise (that of Rio now conveniently shelved) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a date some 14 years away has been painfully extracted. Now the infinitely harder task of doing it must begin. The US, which holds the unenviable title of the world’s largest polluter, has agreed to a 7% cut from 1990 levels by 2012; a reduction which it did not fail to point out meant about one-third reduction from current path predictions of releases. Whether even that promise will be fulfilled remains to be seen. US Congress must ratify the treaty and it is certain that the powerful fossil fuel lobbies will make good use of their financial resources to prevent ratification. With the industrial nations promises of cuts ranging from 5% to 8%, the question now is – How? Most countries appear to be placing their faith in energy efficiency rather than fuel switching. The photovoltaic, windmill and tidal lobbies will undoubtedly have a field day with cries for larger subsidies to pursue the chimera of cheap abundant non-polluting energy. But after some 30 years of state financed experiments with little or nothing to show, their pleas may fall on deaf ears. Energy efficiency is in many ways a better bet and must be pursued; yet in a market economic it must also be price dependent. A recent study in Canada concluded that with present energy pricing the government sponsored schemes for promoting domestic and industrial energy efficiency had failed to pay off. More and more of these well intentioned efforts will only serve to skew the economics of energy even further. Urged on by its lobbyists, the US touted “emissions trading” as a solution to Kyoto. The old slogan of the Greens “think globally, act locally” had become “thing globally, act someplace else”. How a policy of buying the emissions quota of economically less fortunate countries in order to continue business as usual at home can solve global problems defies belief. An allied but more rational approach is that of “joint implementation credit”, where nuclear reactors exported count towards emission credits. One Canadian energy expert calculates that the sale of one or two Candu units per year could offset the projected rise in emissions in Canada. He adds ruefully that this is unlikely to happen. Whether those reactors are to be built in China, North Korea or North America, they would represent the soundest investment in emissions reductions available today. Yet the US has not ordered a nuclear power station at home for nearly twenty years. Is anybody out there listening?

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