Nuclear energy is essential to Europe's low-carbon transition


Picture of Yves Desbazeille
Yves Desbazeille

Director General of FORATOM

Yves Desbazeille is Director General of FORATOM. Previously, he was the EDF representative for energy in Brussels. In the past, has been involved in different businesses & responsibilities at EDF (nuclear, hydro & thermal power projects).

If we, as the European Union, are serious about tackling climate change, then European Union decision makers must act urgently and make use of all the best tools available today. The bloc’s 2050 decarbonisation strategy has to be bold and far reaching, but it cannot ignore the contribution of low-carbon, flexible and dispatchable nuclear energy, capable of addressing the EU’s long-term climate and energy objectives. Keeping the existing nuclear fleet in operation and adding new capacity can help the EU reach its emissions goals and avoid gas lock-in effects. Only by combining renewables with nuclear energy, making up a significant part of Europe’s future energy mix, can we still deliver on our Paris Agreement commitments and save our planet, before it’s too late. This is the only pathway for the EU to achieve its decarbonisation objective.

Today, the EU faces one of its biggest ever challenges. The post-COP21 enthusiasm, when 197 countries decided to sign the landmark Paris Agreement and pledged to limit the increase in global average temperatures to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels”, has virtually vanished as the world falls behind on its promises. The latest report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirms that limiting global warming to 1.5ºC will require rapid, far reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society, changes which have so far yet to materialise.

Limiting global warming to 1.5ºC will require rapid, far reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society

The EU is aware of the threat, as back in 2016 it reaffirmed its commitment to decarbonise its energy mix while going beyond what had been pledged before. Currently, the European Commission is finalising its strategy for long-term EU greenhouse gas emission reductions and aims to publish its proposal a few days before the COP24 conference, which will be held in December 2018 in Katowice, Poland. The 2050 low-carbon strategy will present a European vision of a low-carbon economy and indicate the means needed to decarbonise it. It will shape the European energy mix for the years to come, and it is therefore of utmost importance that its authors – and the decision makers who will have to approve it – consider all the tools and solutions which can contribute to the ultimate goal of stopping climate change.

The path chosen to fully decarbonise the European economy should embrace all-low carbon energy sources and, in this regard, the facts speak for themselves. According to the aforementioned IPCC report, nuclear power has a key role to play if the world is to keep global warming to below 1.5 degrees. The IPCC scenarios foresee an increasing role for nuclear energy in counteracting climate change. The anticipated role of nuclear energy proves that renewables alone cannot solve the climate crisis, and that betting too much on CO2 emitting gas could have harmful lock-in effects on the climate in the long run – which is another important piece of the puzzle that needs to be kept in mind, even though many EU decision makers seem to downplay this threat.

To avoid this risk, more efforts should be made to preserve the existing nuclear fleet in operation as long as safety conditions are maintained. Nuclear energy as a flexible and dispatchable source of energy is capable of energy can contribute to decreasing significantly the EU’s CO2 emissions, which can help the bloc achieve its climate goals.

Nuclear also contributes to meeting the decarbonisation objective by reducing the environmental footprint of the power sector. An efficient and sustainable transition towards low-carbon technologies in the power sector will need to account for both carbon emissions, as well as other forms of environmental impacts, including air pollution land use and resource use.

Apart from its undeniable contribution to counteracting climate change, nuclear energy offers many others benefits which can help the EU, such as providing security of energy supply at a reasonable cost. A cost-effective transition requires a share of dispatchable nuclear generation that remains significant while the share of variable generation increases, as the lack of commercial maturity of storage technologies might lead to a fossil fuel lock-in effect. For this reason, low-carbon dispatchable generation such as nuclear will have a critical role to play in providing flexibility.

Nuclear also contributes to meeting the decarbonisation objective by reducing the environmental footprint of the power sector

Finally, nuclear energy brings cost benefits to consumers and to the system, as well as macro-economic improvements, as maintaining nuclear capacity would mitigate system costs and additional investments in new capacity would maintain high skilled employment in Europe.

Cutting CO2 emissions while maintaining an economically sustainable system has to be recognised as the main goal of the EU’s long-term decarbonisation strategy – imposing targets which focus on a specific energy technology could have a detrimental effect on the ultimate target of reducing CO2 emissions. Those who are concerned about the future of our planet should agree that only by making efficient use of currently available technologies, will the EU comply with the Paris Agreement while ensuring reliability of the energy system and security of supply.

It’s still not too late to stop climate change, but we have to act now and use the tools which are proven and available, such as nuclear energy. Otherwise, there will be nobody to blame but ourselves.

Content supported by FORATOM

This article is part of our ‘What the Chiefs Say’ series in which senior executives from businesses and other organisations share their ideas, concerns and expectations about Europe’s policymaking. The content is supported by our partners and networks, and does not necessarily reflect the views of Friends of Europe.

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