Nuclear Energy and COP21

Concept image of the earth Slowly Burning with pollution, showing North central and south america. Earth based on Nasa image.In less than one week, on November 30, approximately 147 heads of state from across the globe will arrive in Paris, France, for a critical meeting commonly known as COP21. COP21 is an abbreviation for the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

This pivotal meeting has been more than 20 years in the making. The UNFCCC was officially adopted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, and the first COP was held in Berlin in 1995. Today, 196 parties are members of the UNFCCC, and seek to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the threat of climate change.

Challenges Facing COP21

The threat of climate change looms larger than ever. Reports indicating that anthropogenic climate change is escalating have been emerging with increasing regularity. The World Meteorological Organization reports that this year is set to be the hottest ever registered, with climate change making the 2011-2015 period the warmest five years on record. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) asserts that an increasing number of extreme weather events can be directly attributed to climate change. Furthermore, global data released by NOAA and NASA indicate that Earth is already nearly halfway to two degrees of warming, which is the level widely considered the “controllable” amount of climate change.

In fact, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), continuation of current carbon emissions trends puts the world on track towards six degrees of warming, while already-ambitious measures may limit temperatures to a four-degree increase. If either of these scenarios is realized, they are predicted to have catastrophic consequences.

Grim projections such as these place a heavy burden of responsibility on the shoulders of leaders set to meet at COP21, which is undoubtedly felt by all in attendance. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has asserted, “This has to be a success,” though significant barriers to compromise still stand.

One of the greatest obstacles facing consensus is the continued global disparity between countries with developed energy sectors and those still emerging. Historically, countries relied heavily on fossil fuels to support the transition to a modern economy; states still approaching this process do not want to be unfairly punished for the previous emissions of that transitioned in decades past. Yet with the climate crisis an increasingly urgent threat, emerging markets must find alternative mechanisms to expand electricity access.

Although the UNFCCC has established the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), incentivizing developed (Annex 1) countries to fund clean energy projects in developing (Annex 2) countries, the potential of nuclear energy can no longer be ignored. From the virtually nonexistent carbon emitted by a nuclear power plant to the massive volume of power that can be generated by a single installation, nuclear energy is the singular source of clean energy that can support the global economy and meet the demands of a world facing a climate crisis.

The Potential of Nuclear Power

The lifespan of a nuclear power plant is, on average, between 30 to 40 years. During that lifetime, electricity generation produces virtually zero carbon emissions. In fact, in 2014, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found the emissions of nuclear to be comparable to wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric generation, traditionally recognized as the “clean” power sources.

On top of its ability to emit zero greenhouse gases, nuclear power plants are several times more efficient than their renewables counterparts. For example, in one year, just one 1154-Megawatt nuclear power plant generates the same amount of clean electricity as 2,077 2-Megawatt wind generators. Even more significant, nuclear power serves as a baseload source of power generation, operating regardless of weather conditions, and fully dispatchable to match demand. This stands in stark contrast to the variable nature of wind and solar power, which- until significant progress is made in battery storage capacity- are unable to serve as the baseload backbone of an electricity grid.

In short, when executed properly, with abundant safety mechanisms, nuclear energy can turn the tide in the effort to address climate change. Indeed, France exemplifies the results nuclear power can achieve. In the 1970s and 1980s, France embraced nuclear energy and as a result, lowered its greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 2 percent per year. To this day, it operates a fully stable grid 76% reliant on nuclear power, even serving as a net exporter to the rest of the EU.

The Solution for Climate Change and Global Energy Equity

On November 6, the White House hosted a Summit on Nuclear Energy. President and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, Marvin Fertel, expressed that, “This event reflects recognition of the indispensable- and larger- role that nuclear energy must play in any successful effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electric sector,” also marking the fortuitous timing as the Administration “embarks upon the next round of emissions reduction negotiations during the international climate change talks in Paris…”

World leaders gathering at COP21 must recognize the imminent threat of climate change and use every tool at their disposal- especially nuclear energy- to change course, while facilitating global energy access parity. Thorough integration of and continued innovation in nuclear energy is the only way we can achieve both.