At the COP25, energy decarbonization needs to take center stage

2 Desember 2019

Delegates from almost two hundred countries have converged on Madrid this week for the relocated COP25, with public concern about climate change at its highest ever level. The remarkable impact of Greta Thunberg’s inspirational protests and the rapid spread of Extinction Rebellion speak to a growing sense of global urgency, and for good reason; average surface temperatures are fast approaching the level at which climate change becomes dangerous and irreversible.

This concern is driven by increasingly compelling scientific evidence about the need for the decarbonization of the global economy to accelerate dramatically. To address these concerns, the COP25 must focus on actions whose impact will be felt very soon and which can ensure global carbon emissions will peak in 2030 and fall sharply thereafter. At the top of that agenda: total decarbonization of the electricity generation industry.

A solution already at hand

This is essential because, even with better energy efficiency and demand side management, electricity use will rise as surface transport switches away from fossil fuels and measures to improve urban air quality are prioritized. The rapid spread of electricity-intensive data processing technologies will also boost consumption.

The technology needed to decarbonize electricity swiftly is already available. Unfortunately, many governments are reluctant to recognize this, and some green campaigners actually resist its use – undermining their own activism on climate change.

To date, only two countries have ever managed to cut emissions from electricity generation at the speed all countries will now be expected to match. In the wake of the 1970s oil crisis, both France and Sweden accomplished this feat by investing heavily in nuclear power.

The scale of today’s challenge is reflected in the fact that coal still generates 38% of world electricity, the same proportion as 20 years ago. During this period, the share of gas has risen from 17% to 23%. By contrast, since the 1990s, the share of nuclear has fallen from 18% to 10%. If coal had fallen by that amount instead of nuclear, the total carbon emissions from energy today would be 7% lower worldwide.

Renewables, excluding hydro, have risen from 3% to 9% over the last decade, thanks to $2.6 trillion in global investment. This welcome growth will continue, but the figures expose the impossibility of relying on renewable energy alone to provide all of the world’s electricity after 2050. Nuclear, then, is clearly an essential part of the solution to climate change.

Cost: the wrong question?

One frequently raised objection to expanding investment in nuclear is cost. This, however, is a bit like arguing whether you can afford the fire insurance premium on your home. As it stands, we frankly no longer have the luxury of time in solving the climate emergency. Unless action is taken now, the debate will soon stop being about what decarbonization costs. Instead, we will be discussing a far scarier question: can it be done quickly enough to prevent large parts of our planet from becoming uninhabitable by humans?

Cost comparisons between intermittent renewables and nuclear are rarely made on a like-for-like basis. The vast bulk of the growth in renewables will come from intermittent sources like solar and wind. Backup generation capacity, when factored in, adds substantially to costs.

According to the OECD, the system costs of renewable energy quadruple from $7/MWh when renewables supply 10% of a country’s needs to $30/MWh when they supply 50%, and to even higher levels as penetration reaches 80%.

Taking a realistic approach

Despite the imminent climate crisis, some voices still argue for delay in the hope of a technological breakthrough. In many cases, they claim we most urgently need an economically viable form of carbon capture utilization and storage. Unfortunately, such technologies are no nearer than they were a decade ago, and the private sector is becoming increasingly reluctant to commit large sums to researching them.

We also need large scale, long term electricity storage if we are going to rely more substantially on intermittent renewables, but this storage would have to be accessible on a fully flexible basis at very low cost. Developing such futuristic energy storage may be a less elusive goal than carbon capture, but it would still be recklessly irresponsible for us to make policy on the assumption this technology – yet to be invented – will be available soon.

Unlike those pushing for a climate strategy that relies on technologies yet to be developed, advocates of nuclear energy like the New Nuclear Watch Institute do not make extravagant claims about what nuclear energy can do. We merely wish for this proven decarbonized power source to play its part alongside renewable energies, whose expansion we strongly support. It’s time opponents of nuclear power showed a similarly open mind.

As the delegates take up this issue in Madrid, they should understand the stakes of this particular discussion. Unequivocal confirmation at COP25 of the essential role of nuclear in overcoming climate change would be an important step towards deploying every available instrument in the fight against the current and impending dangers of climate change.

Image credit: La Moncloa

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