Here’s what should be on the agenda for COP26
Many experts, think tanks and scientists agree that this will be a vital year in determining measures to solve the climate emergency. The Paris Agreement was adopted at COP21 and legally commits participating nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit this century’s global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius. The UK has committed to taking a leading role in calling for action to tackle the climate emergency and even before the Paris agreement was ratified, passed the climate act which sets a target to reduce UK emissions by at least 80% by 2050, compared to 1990 levels. More recently, secondary legislation was introduced to update this target to a reduction of at least 100% compared to the 1990 baseline. Used in the Kyoto protocol, the baseline level of greenhouse gas emissions is just under 780 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (equivalent).
Current estimates show that greenhouse gas emissions from the UK have almost halved since 1990, largely due to the decline in the use of coal for electricity generation. That might be good news, but estimates of annual global emissions are around 36 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide so, even if the UK managed to completely eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions, that would only be a reduction of about 2% in global terms. Given that global greenhouse gas emissions are increasing at a rate of about 0.4 billion tonnes per year, complete elimination of all UK emissions would be undone by less than 10 months of global emissions. All the UK’s domestic efforts are unlikely to make a difference to the climate emergency. Even worse, the UK doesn’t actually have a plan to get to net zero at home.
The UK has almost eliminated its reliance on coal fired power stations, but about 40% of electricity currently comes from burning gas. The main sources of greenhouse gas emissions are now heating and transport, which most commonly rely on burning hydrocarbons too. The renewable heating incentive scheme along with the commitment to ban the sale of new cars and vans with combustion engines by 2030 will lead to decline, and eventual end, in the reliance on burning hydrocarbons at home or on the road, but will further increase our electricity demand. It’s true that electrical devices are becoming more efficient, but this is offset by our continuing electrification of things which means that demand will not drop any time soon. To further compound the problem, these schemes will only shift emissions from point of use; we might have a plan to centralise emissions, but there isn’t a plan to reduce them. We could, in theory, throw our lot in with wind and solar, and hope that battery technology will improve enough by 2050 to hit the nations’ targets but do we dare trust to hope when extreme weather events are already risking lives?
The UK boldly claims to be a world leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s great at setting policy but it’s hard to see any meaningful or productive executive action arising from these policies. It makes you wonder whether government’s agenda is to address the climate emergency, or whether it’s being swayed by what it sees on its social media feed. Ultimately, a government may only be in power for a few years so does it really have long term climate goals in mind or is it setting ambitious targets as a way of paying lip-service to fashionable trends?
Government really likes setting competitions and providing headline-grabbing investment. The Faraday Challenge involves up to £330 million spending on research into batteries, there’s talk about a future hydrogen economy, and £40 million was earmarked for a competition to develop small modular reactors. These sums seem large to many people but in the context of projects likely to cost many billions they must be seen as seed capital and no more. It seems to be down to private companies to do all of the hard work. The thing is, investment in new, unproven technology could come too late to hit the target set by the Paris Agreement. There is, however, another much more established technology that in which the UK already has decades of experience.
Large fission reactors have been generating electricity in the UK since 1956 and now supply around 20% of the nation’s power. Is it really a good idea to ignore 60 years’ experience of generating electricity using technology that doesn’t directly emit greenhouse gases? It’s true that the concrete required to build a new large reactor would have some associated emissions, but some estimates say that this is similar to the amount released when constructing offshore wind turbines.
Not so long ago, government seemed to want to go all in on new nuclear build. There was a flurry of activity as companies from Japan, Korea, the US, France and China vied to build on one the ten sites earmarked for new build. What they found was a hostile environment where politics and regulations were stacked against them. The Generic Design Assessment process is a lengthy multi-step process that seems to ignore the fact that the reactor technology being considered for the UK is already being used safely and securely elsewhere in the world. Proven technology had to prove itself all over again when being constructed across the channel from an existing reactor project. In fact, the distance from Flamanville 3 to Hinkley Point C is only 120 miles as the crow flies yet the UK regulator insisted on a number of design modifications to meet its expectations.
Over the last decade, Government seemed to lose interest and has turned its attention to other ideas including SMRs and fusion reactors, many of which feature technology that is as yet unproven. This feels a bit like a stalling tactic, as if this government is kicking the can further down the road for a future government to deal with. The result is a lot of policy but no meaningful action now that would tackle the climate crisis.
COP26 could change that. You would like to think that the discussions would come up with a meaningful, actionable plan for tackling this global emergency. It would be reasonable for the public to expect that these discussions would consider all available technologies so it seems odd that the Nuclear Industry Association has highlighted that the nuclear industry won’t be represented at the event. This has implications, not just for the UK, but for the entire world. The inference is that not a single nation will be considering investing in a truly blended energy mix using renewables balanced by proven baseload nuclear technology as a means of tackling the climate emergency. It suggests that other technologies have somehow won some sort of popularity contest that ignores the advantages and disadvantages of each technology.
For the UK, assuming that we’re all using heat pumps and electric vehicles in the future, we’ll be heavily dependent on electricity and there’s no guarantee we’ll be able to generate all of it at home. The UK currently imports between 5-10% of its electricity. Combine our increased reliance on electricity with the decommissioning of the original fleet of nuclear reactors and it is likely that by 2025, nuclear will contribute around 2-3%. With the likely delay or even abandonment of Sizewell C, Hinkley Point C remains the only in-flight nuclear project in the UK.
And you have to wonder why the UK is even bothering to invest in new technology if we know that reducing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions will barely make a dent in global emissions.
This all sounds pretty bleak, so what should we be doing?
First of all, the energy industries need a consistent message from government. There is a huge potential market so rather than being in competition with each other, each of the low carbon developers should be working together to create a robust portfolio of nuclear, renewable and advanced technologies. This will require a political decision. Government should decide how much electricity it wants each part of the industry to produce, and which technology it will back. If the nuclear industry knows what it needs to do then it can start to figure out how to get there. In the UK, we already have the capability to operate PWRs and we should also invest in high temperature gas cooled reactors, given our knowledge of their operation has accumulated over a period of 60+ years. Indeed, the much-vaunted TRISO fuel that will form the core of most Gen IV HTGRs stems from the experimental Dragon reactor which operated at Winfrith in Dorset until 1975.
The UK’s approach to regulation is often seen as a huge barrier to any nuclear new build project. The Office for Nuclear Regulation quite rightly sets a high bar for safety, yet the non-prescriptive approach taken to demonstrating compliance with these expectations is opaque. This approach creates a protracted, unwelcoming environment for prospective investors and developers. If it’s easier for a global company to build reactors somewhere else, then why would they want to do anything in the UK which, after all, is a relatively small market? A more welcoming regulator and a less hostile political environment could make the world of difference to nuclear new build in the UK. Of course, the UK isn’t the biggest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions but then, shouldn’t the UK also be doing more to help other nations and leading by example before standing on the world stage at COP26?
People expect their elected governments to take care of the country during a crisis by making sound decisions based on scientific evidence to protect the long-term interests of our people. We’re in a climate crisis; it’s time to make a decision.